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

Santa Maria in Aracoeli

Edward Burra (1905-1976)
Santa Maria in Aracoeli
pencil, watercolour and gouache on paper, on four joined sheets
60½ x 43½ in. (153.5 x 110.5 cm.)
Executed in 1938-1939.
with Lefevre Gallery, (Alex Reid and Lefevre Ltd.), London.
R.L. Banks, his sale; Sotheby's, London, 18 July 1973, lot 206.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 23 November 1994, lot 20.
Private collection, London.
with Lefevre Gallery, (Alex Reid and Lefevre Ltd.), London, where purchased by the present owner in June 2002.
A. Causey, Edward Burra Complete Catalogue, Oxford, 1985, n.p., no. 150, illustrated.
Optima, Vol. II, 17 February 2001, no. 213, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Edward Burra 1905-1976, A Centenary Exhibition, London, Lefevre Fine Art Ltd., 2005, pp. 36-37, no. 14, illustrated.
S. Martin, exhibition catalogue, The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, 2016, p. 51, no. 23, illustrated.
London, Olympia, Edward Burra, February - March 2001, no. 33.
London, Lefevre Fine Art Ltd., Edward Burra 1905-1976, A Centenary Exhibition, May - June 2005, no. 14.
Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, October 2016 - February 2017, no. 23.

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William Porter

Lot Essay

‘Artists of all persuasions admire the powerful design in Burra’s compositions, the strength of drawing, the vivid colour and the authoritative and expressive handling of his chosen medium watercolour’ Bryan Robertson

A monumental, highly refined watercolour, Edward Burra’s Santa Maria in Aracoeli was executed in 1938-1939, following the artist’s travels around northern Italy. Dominating this scene is a strange figure, a composite of a classical sculpture with a feathered torso morphing into a more human-like body, behind which, the church, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome stands perched atop its impressive marble staircase. Burra had a great love of Classicism and Mediterranean culture, travelling frequently around the continent, and though he has depicted this Roman landmark, it is interesting to note that he had not actually visited the city before he painted this work. Instead, he would likely have worked, as he often did, from photographs or postcards of this famous landmark, fusing various elements into one image. It has also been suggested that the classical head was taken from the sculptures of the Dioscuri, the twins Castor and Pollux, that flank the Piazza del Campidoglio, which stands next to the Aracoeli church (S. Martin, exhibition catalogue, The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art, 1920-1950, Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, 2016-2017, p. 51).

The combination of the classical statuary set against regulated and carefully rendered classical architecture is immediately reminiscent of the early metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. Burra had seen De Chirico’s work at first hand over the course of his visits to Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Indeed, the composition of the present work can be likened to De Chirico’s Le chant d’amour (1914; Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which the strange and unexpected juxtaposition of the antique with banal, modern objects had a revelatory impact on many of the Surrealists, including Max Ernst, René Magritte, André Breton and Salvador Dalí, to name but a few. In the present work, the same strange sense of disquieting or melancholic stillness that defines De Chirico’s metaphysical landscapes pervades the seemingly deserted, people-less scene, lending it a timelessness and otherworldliness.

The classical subject matter and motifs of Santa Maria in Aracoeli also reflect the wider European inter-war artistic tendency known as the Return to Order. Across Europe, following the trauma of the First World War, artists and writers alike looked backwards, to the styles, themes and subjects of the antique in an attempt to harness classical ideals of harmony, stability and beauty in their art. It was the poet and writer Jean Cocteau, a figure much admired by Burra, who coined this term in 1926, and this tendency can be seen in the artist’s work at this time. Indeed, the flatness of the pale, ochre-toned architecture, as well as the soaring perspective, all reflect Burra’s embrace of the classical in this work, as well as pointing to his love of art of the early Renaissance, particularly the work of Paolo Uccello and Luca Signorelli (S. Martin, ‘Street Scene: Burra’s view of Urban Modern Life’, in exhibition catalogue, Edward Burra, Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, 2011, p. 51).

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