On sale: Burton's unknown art
Sunday 06 June 1993
Lady Burton would not have approved: when Sir Richard died, in 1890, she burnt almost all his unpublished manuscripts including diaries and journals. That makes this collection an unexpected find and it is expected to fetch pounds 45,000 in all. How it survived remains a mystery.
As a pious Catholic, Lady Burton was horrified by her husband's salacious translation of the Arabian Nights. 'She was worried it would spoil his reputation,' said Nicholas Lambourn of Christie's. At her own death, any remaining manuscripts were bequeathed to her sister with the instruction that they 'be burnt without being read'. Fortunately, one of three literary trustees prevented that: the collection is now in a public library in California.
The sale pictures illustrate many aspects of Burton's life: military service in India and the Crimea (his reports on homosexual brothels in Karachi put an end to his military career); a pilgrimage in disguise to Mecca, which was forbidden to non-Muslims; expeditions to Africa.
A Burton expedition discovered the source of the Nile, but it was his second in command who actually found Lake Victoria, and, much to Burton's disappointment, broke a promise not to tell the world before Burton returned to England. The sketches are in a scrapbook bulging with untidy, rough-edged pieces of paper. Most are accompanied by barely legible notes in his spidery handwriting; others are illustrations in pen-and-ink or watercolour.
His panoramic landscapes reflect a scientist's eye for intricate detail; but some of his oddly proportioned figures reveal Burton as an untrained artist.
A self-portrait of him in oriental dress is expected to sell for between pounds 4,000 and pounds 6,000. His dress and the Persian inscription suggest that it dates from the Mecca pilgrimage in 1853.
One faint sketch in the album shows a sacrifice on the road to Benin. In his journal he noted: 'An unpleasant object now met our eyes . . . the figure of a man bare to the waist . . . and wrists fastened to a framework of peeled sticks. . . . He had been crucified. . . . The features still expressed strangulation.'
Mr Lambourn said: 'Burton was more intelligent than Livingstone or Stanley. And whereas the London Illustrated News turned Africans into caricatures, he treated them seriously.'
The album also contains some caricatures, but whether all are by Burton is unclear. Nor is it clear whether any of the unflattering drawings of women represent the incendiary Lady Burton.
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