While it is undated, the most probable date for the unsettling The Sphinx is the mid-forties, when in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Burra was strongly drawn to painting ruins.
Exhibited at the Hamet Gallery in 1970, The Sphinx was first bought by Sir Frederick Gibberd, the principal architect of Harlow New Town. He collected British watercolours by living artists from 1935 until his death in 1984, at which point the bulk of his collection was donated to Harlow, where it is on permanent display in the Gibberd Gallery. He also acquired Burra’s Still Life with Fruit and Skull and a rather de Chirico-esque painting from 1937, Prisoner of Fate.
Burra’s paintings could be touched off by something he saw, a combination of colours that caught his attention, or quite often, by what he read. Because his health was so poor, his habit was to paint in the morning until he was tired, then retire to the sofa to write letters to his friends, and above all, to read, widely and eclectically. He notes many of his book purchases in his diary: his 1941 purchases include The Origin of the Jesuits, Wyndham Lewis’s The Vulgar Streak, Sodom by the Sea (a history of Coney Island), and a good deal of poetry.
The Great Sphinx was in the news during the war, because it was protected from possible bomb damage by a rampart of sandbags which supported the head and transformed its appearance dramatically: this may have been reported in a newsreel or a magazine article. However, Burra’s image is of the Sphinx without this protection; in fact, it looks as if his visual reference may have been a pre-1900 photograph of the monument when it was still up to its neck in sand: some early photos also show small human figures to illustrate scale, as Burra does in this painting. His Sphinx does not have the serene, eroded features of the original, but wears a curious, sneering smile, the lips pursed as if it is about to speak: Burra was perhaps thinking of the Greek legend of the Sphinx as a teller of riddles.
The scale of the green ‘scarab’, with its savagely toothed jaws, appears to be massive, if we are to take the two little robed figures in the foreground as a guide. Burra could easily have seen the monumental sculpture of the scarab-god Khepri in the British Museum, which is made of greenish diorite, a metre and a half in length. The mysterious mass on the left seems to be the remains of some other giant monumental sculpture so eroded that its forms can no longer be made out. As Shelley says in Ozymandias, a poem Burra will certainly have known:
'Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away'.
The spiky scarab may be a personal symbol. Several of Burra’s paintings include a small, poisonous creature; a scorpion in The Ham (1931), a beetle in The Duennas (1932). These may be a sort of self-portrait, since he thought of himself, particularly during the war years, as small, spiky, and above all, venomous; as he wrote to his friend Billy Chappell, at the beginning of the war, he had ‘an enlarged SPLEEN spleen sweatheart bigger than ever these days and distilling venom’ … ‘I think such awful things I get in such paroxysms of impotent venom I feel it must poison the atmosphere’ (W. Chappell, Well Dearie, the Letters of Edward Burra, London, 1985, p. 104). But in this picture, the insect god, like the Sphinx, is an obsolete monument to a forgotten culture, gradually vanishing beneath the sand: a strange but legible response to the exhaustion and disorientation of the immediate aftermath of the War.
We are very grateful to Professor Jane Stevenson for preparing this catalogue entry.