Born in 1905 in South Kensington, Burra lived all his life in Rye, Sussex. At the age of thirteen he was severely struck by anaemia and rheumatic fever and was forced to leave school with a minimal formal education. Encouraged by his parents he turned to art, drawing and painting at home until 1921. Two years of study at Chelsea Polytechnic from 1921-23 were followed by a year at the Royal College of Art. At the College he was regarded as something of a strange scholar, being an exceptionally accomplished draughtsman who read widely and possessed an an extraordinary imagination.
From an early age his work was characterised by an interest in the sinister and menacing aspects of life; he told John Rothenstein (J. Rothenstein, Edward Burra, catalogue for the Tate Gallery exhibition, London, 1973, p. 35): 'Everything looks menacing; I'm always expecting something calamitous to happen'. Until the mid-thirties this preoccupation was expressed in his depiction of low-life characters; visits to the continent from the mid-twenties onwards, and to the United States and Mexico in 1933-4 provided him with a rich source of subjects, such as Mediterranean ports with sailors' cafés, and Harlem with its bars and brothels.
The onset of the Spanish Civil War in the mid-thirties, followed by the outbreak of the Second World War had a profound effect on Burra. He was overwhelmed by a sense of tragedy which he expressed in increasingly macabre compositions dominated by strange predatory figures. In a typically mis-spelt and unpunctuated letter to his friend William Chappell, circa 1945, he explained: 'Painting is of course a kind of drug. The very sight of peoples faces sickens me Ive got no pity it realy is terrible sometimes Ime quite frightened at myself I think such awful things I get in such paroxysms of importent venom I feel it must poison the atmosphere' (see J. Rothenstein, op. cit., p. 30).
When in the late forties Burra began to turn away from depicting people in their environment (and non-human beings in theirs) to focus on inanimate objects and landscapes, he continued to imbue these subjects with a sense of strangeness. The Tea Party illustrates this transition in his work. The lower half of the composition is devoted to a still life which includes the favourite image of a black teapot; the upper half of the composition is dominated by a view through a window over an extensive and atmospheric landscape; the scene is presided over by two typically grotesque masked figures.