Edward Burra (1905-1976)
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Edward Burra (1905-1976)

The Nitpickers

Edward Burra (1905-1976)
The Nitpickers
signed and dated 'Ed 32' and stamped with signature 'E.J. Burra' (lower left)
pencil, watercolour and gouache
29½ x 15½ in. (74.5 x 39.4 cm.)
There is a pencil drawing by the same artist on the reverse.
with Lefevre Gallery, London, where purchased by the present owner.
A. Causey, Edward Burra Complete Catalogue, Oxford, 1985, n.p., no. 90a, illustrated.
S. Martin, Edward Burra, Farnham, 2011, p. 48, pl. 42.
R. Cooke, 'Edward Burra - review', The Guardian, 23 October 2011.
A. Lambirth, 'Burra revealed', The Spectator, 7 January 2012.
Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, Edward Burra, October 2011 - February 2012, exhibition not numbered: this exhibition travelled to Nottingham, Djanogly Arts Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham, March - May 2012.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

John Rothenstein, writing on Burra in the ‘Penguin Modern Painters’ series, suggested that Burra’s imagination seethed with imagined encounters in sailors’ brothels. But in fact, he chose to depict sailors in public spaces such as bars and cafés, and his images of prostitutes, similarly, such as the well-known Snack Bar (1930; Tate Gallery), are of working girls at leisure. The Nit-Pickers is the only painting known which pursues prostitutes into their working world, in this case, the red light district of Marseille. Tristram Hillier, a ‘Unit One’ confrère of Burra’s, was familiar with it, and intrigued: ‘on the further side of the port stood the tall decaying houses, like rows of rotten teeth, which hid the strange labyrinth of the Quartier Privée; a world of stinking alleys and cavernous doorways leading into the eternal twilight of dim courtyards or foul tenements that housed the very dregs of human corruption. It was a kingdom of whores, thieves and murderers who were left very much to themselves … [of] beds upon which, in full view of the street, were enacted every form of sexual indulgence and perversion’ (T. Hiller, Leda and the Goose: An Autobiography, London, 1954, p. 81). Additionally, another painter known to Burra, Edward Wadsworth, made the Quartier Privée the subject of several paintings in the early 1920s.

Burra was fascinated by the idea of a prostitutes’ quarter: aged twenty-two, in 1927, he hopefully visited the Grand Rue, Marseille, which ‘the guide book says is a veritable ghetto of houses of ilfame my dear I stares into every window hoping for a thrill but all I see is little Georgette having her nappy changed by loving mothers hands’. He seems actually to have ventured into the Quartier Privée on at least one occasion, in 1931, accompanied by his friend Barbara Ker-Seymer, who wanted to photograph the women.

'Ed and I went up to the red light district in Marseilles where the elderly (to us) tarts sat on wooden chairs outside their bedrooms which opened onto the street concealed by bead curtains. We were going to photograph them, but one of them saw us and rushed after us calling out in French, ‘You’ll have to pay for that’, but Ed and I flew down a side street and escaped’ (B. Ker-Seymer to A. Stephenson, 30 May 1984, quoted in A. Stephenson, The work of Edward Burra, 1919 -1936: context and imagery, Edinburgh PhD thesis, 1988, p. 184).

For Burra, with his limited mobility, this must have been an alarming experience, and there is no evidence that he attempted to repeat it. However, Ker-Seymer also noted that ‘Not long after that we saw photographs in Variétés of exactly what we had seen’ (ibid., p. 184). Variétés, a Belgian avant-garde magazine, ran a feature on the Quartier Privée on 15 May 1929. Burra must have got hold of a copy (Zwemmer’s art bookshop in the Charing Cross Road carried continental art periodicals), and perhaps used it to refresh his memory.

The Nit-Pickers reflects the poverty-stricken world described by Hillier. To the left is a cubicle-like room, just big enough for a bed, opening directly onto the street and shielded only by a curtain, while a group of prostitutes hang out, two of them sitting on wooden chairs. They are not enticing; they are in fact, off duty and saving their energy, like a pride of lions basking in the sun. A massive woman, legs akimbo, is scratching the back of her head reflectively, the eyes of her lean friend, sitting opposite, are not engaging the viewer, but are unfocused. Another is lethargically wielding a broom. Burra seems to have been all but asexual, due perhaps to his lack of physical energy: although several of his early paintings, such as Folles de Belville (1928) and Mae West (1934), tackle female seductiveness, he does not seem to have felt any masculine anxiety about the challenge these women represent. His treatment of the women in this painting is fundamentally detached; neither prurient nor appalled, he is an unseduced observer.

Though the group of prostitutes give life and movement to the image, they are only partially Burra’s subject. He seems at least as interested in the street itself, grey-white and dusty; with the claustrophobic tenement buildings narrowing in sharp perspective, and climbing up after the cross street, to a knifelike fragment of blue sky. It is the sharp cross formed by the intersecting streets that holds the composition together.

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

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