John Spurling

Potent venom

‘Everything looks menacing,’ Edward Burra once told the Tate’s director Sir John Rothenstein. ‘I’m always expecting something calamitous to happen.’ This was late in Burra’s career, when his by then well-known and characteristic figure paintings had mostly given way to landscapes and still lifes, though without any diminution in their imaginative power or their peculiar sense of humorous unease. There were still figures in some of them, though they had become more insubstantial. ‘Why,’ asked his friend William Chappell, ‘are you painting transparent people?’ ‘Well,’ said Burra, ‘don’t you find as you get older, you start seeing through everything?’

Like so many of the best British artists, Burra was sui generis, an eccentric who forged his inimitable style from a seemingly random bundle of influences. Signorelli gave his figures their tight bottoms and taut poses, Goya, Grosz and Breughel their malevolent, gross, oafish faces, Beardsley their febrile exhibitionism, De Chirico and Ernst their nightmarish settings and, occasionally, bird heads. And all, ladies and gentlemen, executed in watercolour! Afflicted from boyhood with arthritis and anaemia, Burra lived most of his life with his parents near Rye (which he called Tinkerbell Town) and after their deaths in one of the cottages in the grounds of their former home. He had to sit down to work and found oil painting beyond his strength. But his macabre imagination and passion for bold colour-effects demanded more than the atmospheric washes usually associated with watercolour, so he piled on layers of colour and forced the medium to dance to his more aggressive tune.

In spite of his physical weakness, he travelled extensively in Europe and America and, although he never attended his own private views, not even when the Tate gave him a retrospective in 1973 — claiming that he knew the pictures perfectly well already and never showing any further interest in a painting he had finished — he frequently visited museums and other artists’ exhibitions.

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