Edward Burra used to be remembered for his early pictures of cityscapes and their denizens, though now there is more and more appreciation of the variety of his work. The early pictures were sharply realised records of individuals he saw in bars and cafés or on the street. After the war, he ceased to be interested in such subjects. Through the Forties and Fifties, he had phases of producing hyper-realist still lives, or flower pieces, but another very clear thread is a development from the surreal figures which he had produced in the early Thirties with the encouragement of Paul Nash; blank-eyed daimons, often with the heads of birds. The difference is that his Fifties spooks are not hard-edged, but ghostly, flat and sometimes transparent, and frequently have blank white eyes. One notable feature of his work in this period is that his colour palette became ever richer and more gorgeous: the saturated blues, yellows, turquoise and russet of this picture are typical of his art in this decade. His reference-point may be the wooded cliffs at Hastings, going towards Fairlight, which he visited with his sister in May 1961, and was clearly interested by: ‘We did go a little drive with Anne yesterday through the mists up to the Fire hills at Fairli’ …it’s a strange labyrinthine region covered in verdant richness covering up Ferdinand Céline shacks & bungalows’ (Burra in a letter to William Chappell from Chapel House, Rye, 29 August 1961, in W. Chappell (ed.), Well Dearie!, London, 1985, p. 148). If so, then it is an early indication of the interest in landscape which would be central to his work in the Sixties.
Burra was interested in the occult, and read extensively on witchcraft and the supernatural. He greatly enjoyed horror stories, which fitted his view of the world; and wrote to his friend Billy Chappell, ‘Someone gave me a book of very unwholesome ghost stories from America by a man called Lovebody & Love something [H.P. Lovecraft] they realy frightened me they are nothing but terrible things & “jellys” etc with a little witchcraft & monsters suddenly tear people to peices after “scratching” at the door…’ (Burra in a letter to Chappell, undated, Burra archive, Lefevre Gallery). In another letter he mentions reading about ‘Demonology goety? Voodoo feindish hauntings malign jellies & Elementals etc’ (Burra in a letter to Chappell, Christmas, circa 1949, Burra archive, Lefevre Gallery). His paintings suggest that this reading was not merely casual entertainment; but that idea of spirits, powers and demons active in the world was of continued interest and importance to him. He believed, in some sense of that complex word, in demons, and also in spirits of place. For example, in a garden in Yorkshire which took his fancy, ‘huge trees & grass which is what I like. dead still & foggy, & rather dim, I must say if I had been alone & it had been my garden, I should find it a shade eerie –– one expects something’ (Burra in a letter to Chappell, from Queen's Close, undated, probably 1967, Burra archive, Lefevre Gallery). This receptivity is evidenced by many pictures. If there is a narrative element to this particular image, perhaps the jewel-bright spooks crowding towards one are refugees from the house which is burning in the distance, looking for a new home which they will certainly choose for their own convenience and nobody else’s: they emanate power without intelligence, and so cannot be bargained with.
We are very grateful to Professor Jane Stevenson for preparing this catalogue entry.