Edward Burra: 20th-century eye, By Jane Stevenson

This biography of an underrated painter and notable eccentric works best when it uses his own words
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The Independent Culture

The English painter Edward Burra (1905-1976) was born in Rye, Sussex, into upper-middle-class respectability in the decade before Europe was plunged into a war which would change the face of the world forever. His family wielded both money and privilege, but in his own quiet way he violently rebelled against both, leaving a legacy of paintings in the figurative tradition which are amongst the strangest and the most distinctive of the century.

Yet for all that, this is the first time that a full-length biography of him has been written. Why? Because Burra doesn't quite fit in. In fact, he has often been left out even of supposedly authoritative surveys of 20th- century painting.

He is not an easy man to categorise. He belonged to no schools and abhorred pigeon-holing of any kind. As an artist, and in spite of the times through which he lived, he had no truck with abstraction. For want of an even better hackneyed phrase, Stevenson calls him a "magic realist"; ho hum, but can anyone else do any better? His paintings are macabre, nightmarishly disturbing, inclined at times towards caricature and cartooning.

In spite of his background, he was besotted by everything that would have appalled any other respectable inhabitant of Rye. He loved low life, jazz and the blues. He loved garish tarts in seamy locales. Not that he was a highly sexual being in any way on the contrary, his life-long ailments probably put paid to anything of that kind. He had to adore from a distance which he did, consumingly. Above all, he loved to tell stories in his paintings during a century which strenuously turned its back on storytelling in favour of more aridly intellectualising ideals.

In spite of the fact that he rather grudgingly allowed himself to be aligned with the Surrealist movement for a while, it was far from a perfect fit. Others tried for a time to make him fit in merely in order to help him to make a living by his art. The painter Paul Nash, for example, who was a life-long friend, was forever trying to sell the idea of Burra to dealers. Burra hated art talk artFart, as he called it with the consequence that he proved to be a completely useless advocate for his own work. Even had he not been a chronic invalid all his life, he would still have been temperamentally unsuited to putting himself about.

Jane Stevenson's painstaking biography gives us a full portrait of the man and his social context, from birth to death. She quotes regularly from his letters to his many close friends in spite of the fact that he was not a man who relished a crowd, he had many fast, loyal friends and these quotations are among the best things in this book.

Burra's letters are so good because his turns of phrase and manner of writing a kind of drawling, unpunctuated, indolently scathing wit bring over the flavour of the man so beautifully. How did he talk? In a kind of high-camp "Mayflower cockney" is how this book describes it. The late George Melly, who was a bit not a lot of a friend, described his voice in old age as sounding like "an elderly but game Edwardian tart propositioning from the shadows".

The book at times, feels a little overburdened by peripheral material about many of the lesser players in Burra's life. A more serious shortcoming is that not a single one of Burra's paintings is reproduced here so that, having had our appetites whetted for the work, we are wholly unable to satisfy that longing.

The best moments in this book are the quotations from the letters themselves. They make the rest of the book seem a little flat and one-damn-thing-after-anotherish by comparison, even when the author is trying and she is often trying to give her own prose the energy and the sense of slightly scatty fun that Burra, in spite of his ailments, manages to inject into his descriptions of the absurdities of the human tribe. Even when he describes the death of his father, Burra manages to inject a touch of baleful humour: "I must say the dieing didn't seem to put out father," he writes.

Perhaps some enterprising publisher will now consider the possibility of publishing a volume of Burra's letters.