Edward Burra's maternal grandparents were Scots; John Robertson-Luxford of Coiscraig on Loch Rannoch (Perthshire) and Cecilia Walker of Dalry (Midlothian). Though the family moved to Sussex in 1875, their offspring, including Burra's mother, maintained contact with relatives in Scotland. But the Luxfords and Walkers were rich, respectable and right-wing. Burra would certainly not have been exposed to the Gorbals, or even to Glasgow - his family associations are with the east coast.
However, from an early age, Burra was attracted to the idea of slums. His sister recalled that as a small boy, a regular game was building towns which included 'terrible tenements'. Probably the first such buildings he actually saw were not in Glasgow, but in Marseilles, which he first visited in 1927. As Burra's contemporary Tristram Hillier described it, '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.' In the Quartier Privée, the whores' rooms opened directly onto the street, with only a curtain to conceal them: Burra painted one such vista in 1932, The Nitpickers. It is morning, and the women are at leisure in a street of vertiginous tenements with shutters and iron balconies. Regular rows of tenement windows, with people peering out or leaning on their balconies, continued to fascinate him as a painter. His eye was drawn to similar streets in Harlem when he stayed there in 1933 (Harlem Street reflects this) and in the Albaicín, Granada and the Barrio Chino of Barcelona, as his designs for Carmen bear witness.
What finally took him to Glasgow itself was a ballet commission in 1944. The actor/director Michael Benthall, lover of Robert Helpmann, joined the Royal Artillery on the outbreak of war. When Benthall found himself working on a gunsite in Glasgow, he had an idea for a ballet, in which Christ would appear in a modern slum. The Gorbals were then notorious, due to No Mean City, a 1932 novel about poverty, violence and razor-gangs which shocked the nation, so his scenario was called Miracle in the Gorbals. It was sentimental melodrama, but useful in the context of wartime ballet. Most of the Sadler's Wells men had been called up, including all the virtuoso dancers, so the Australian Helpmann, though stronger as a mime than a dancer, had become a principal because he was exempt from military service. He was therefore looking for dance-mime ideas, and Miracle was ideal. It was scheduled for autumn 1944.
Burra was asked to design, and Ninette de Valois sent him off to Glasgow to soak up the atmosphere early in that year. He had been depressed, tired, and extremely unwell since the beginning of the war, with anaemia, a swollen spleen, and periodic attacks of gout: he had also barely left Rye. Though Ninette de Valois recalls that it was pouring with rain during this reconnaissance, he found Glasgow intensely interesting. Urban decay suited his frame of mind, the extrovert style of Glaswegians gave him plenty to observe, and his love of street scenes flared up anew.
The visit must have been short, but it was extremely productive. Apart from the tenements, shops and shipyards which he drew on for the set and drop-curtains, he observed street style very carefully, which is just as well, since Helpmann wanted realism: 'I think some of the girls should have terrible pompadours with dyed streaks in them ... bristling with celluloid barres and kirbigrips', he urged. In drawings, costume- and set-designs, and in this painting, Burra's acute observation of Glasgow and Glaswegians is evident. Older women still muffle their heads and necks in heavy shawls, like the plaids worn by their Highland ancestors, while children are in shapeless handmedowns. Women wear workmen's tackety boots and wrinkled stockings, and faces and bodies are distorted by poverty and poor diet.
The Gorbals adds a vein of fantasy to this detailed observation. There is a characteristic fascination with perspective, and the architecture is accurately rendered, but in the distance, strange masks leer from behind grimy curtains. The two principal figures are middle-aged, but tooth-loss has collapsed their faces until they resemble two of The Three Fates in his 1937 painting. The complexion of the girl carrying the pink jug combines bluish pallor with a cold-reddened nose and cheeks, like one of the Glasgow waifs painted by Joan Eardley, but the boy who is smoking wears lipstick and mascara - Burra may have spotted a tough little tart in Sauchiehall Street, or alternatively this may be a sardonic reference to the effect achieved by some of the male dancers in Miracle (the costume of Alexis Rassine was a cap and shabby suit in much this style). Burra might also be remembering the diminutive Gordon Hamilton, who played 'the urchin', since this dancer made a strong impression on him as a 'terrifying aged gutter midget queen type.'
Burra found the ballet itself kitsch to the point of comedy. 'I went to a rehearsal too ... in which Messia H'man was sweeping nobly about being "jostled" by members of the Caseys Court gang he was then surrounded pushed over backwards & given a good sharp kick in the balls then a knee in the stomach after that they all produced razors & slashed him in the face swept him up & over & delivered 2 sharp pokes with broken bottles in the face then followed a sort of descent de la croix copied from El Greco & a resurection and scotch jig.' All the same, the experience envigorated him, and it is clear from this painting that it renewed his pre-war appetite for 'tenements of such a pitch of degringolade ... inhabited by crones who vanish into portals smoothed shiny by layers of crasse [grease]'. It was this Glasgow sojourn which laid the foundations for the magnificent series of Irish paintings he created in the late Forties.
We are very grateful to Professor Jane Stevenson for preparing this catalogue entry.