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Edward Burra (1905-1976)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A MID-ATLANTIC FOUNDATION
Edward Burra (1905-1976)

Susanna and the Elders

Edward Burra (1905-1976)
Susanna and the Elders
with stamped signature 'E.J. Burra' (lower right)
pencil, watercolour and gouache
30 x 52 ½ in. (76.2 x 133.3 cm.)
Executed in 1959-61.
with Lefevre Gallery, London, where purchased by the present owner, 1961.
A. Causey, Edward Burra Complete Catalogue, Oxford, 1985, n.p., no. 278, illustrated.
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Lot Essay

Burra produced a highly individual series of religious paintings in 1950-52, mostly focused on Christ. After that he showed no further interest in religious themes, with the exception of this painting, based on a story in the Old Testament apocrypha. The prophet Daniel features in it as the world’s first consulting detective. When two elders accuse the guiltless Susanna of cavorting with a lover in her garden because she has refused their sexual advances, he brings the two old men into court separately, and asks each of them the same question: what kind of tree were the pair lying under? Thoroughly caught out, they give different answers and Susanna is vindicated.

What drew Burra’s attention to the story was most probably his involvement in the Oxford Illustrated Old Testament, which eventually appeared in 1968. In January 1958, he visited the Press and handed over drawings for Judith and Holofernes, but he had promised other contributions, not then complete: drawings for ‘The Three Holy Children’, which is a story from the Book of Daniel, and Zechariah. Unfortunately, they are next mentioned in a letter he wrote in 1966: ‘I also heard a plaint from the Oxford Press about illustrations to Zachariah & Daniel or the seven deadly children which, as I hadnt heard a word for months I thought they didn’t want. (they took the ones I did for Judith & payd me for them) of course I couldn’t find the drawings for Z & D Ide done … Finaly I ran them to earth in my bedroom under a pile of old shirts & sweaters that hadnt been moved for I don’t know how long realy by the special intervention of the 7 deadly children othewise they would have been there another 6 months’ (Burra in a letter to William Chappell, 25 December 1966, Conrad Aitken archive, Huntingdon Archive, California, AIK 3940-3942). So that is why Burra was reading the Book of Daniel at the end of the Fifties.

Susanna was popular with baroque painters, who typically seized upon the chance to represent a beautiful nude woman in an open-air setting. Not Burra. His Susanna is a small white figure in the middle distance, standing inelegantly on one leg. In a nod to baroque treatments of the theme, she is accompanied by a small black slave in a red fez, who appears to be drying her with a pink towel. The subject of the painting is voyeurism; the elders, of whom there are several, are somewhere between humans and cloaked birds of prey, and have the blank, burning eyes he so often gave to figures at this stage of his development. They are ugly, alarming predators; and Susanna’s innocent obliviousness defines her as prey. Rather than making the viewer complicit with the elders’ voyeurism, it is they that are the object of our gaze: one is watching the elders as one might watch hyenas in a nature film about the Serengeti. Also typical of Burra’s postwar art is the focus on the garden itself, a stupendous jungle of vegetable growth; with ripe, swelling fruit which conveys the sensuality so notably absent from Susanna’s naked body.

We are very grateful to Professor Jane Stevenson for preparing this catalogue entry.

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