(b London, 29 Mar. 1905; d Hastings, Sussex, 22 Oct. 1976). British painter, draughtsman, and stage designer, an eccentric and individual figure. He was ravaged by ill health continuously from childhood and lived almost all his life in the genteel Sussex seaside town of Rye (he called it an ‘overblown gifte shoppe’), but he travelled indomitably and had a tremendous zest for life. His career, in fact, represents a revolt against his respectable middle-class background, for he was fascinated by low-life and seedy subjects, which he experienced at first hand in places such as the streets of Harlem in New York and the dockside cafés of Marseilles.
By his mid-twenties he had formed a distinctive style, depicting squalid subjects with a keen sense of the grotesque and a delight in colourful detail. Usually he worked in watercolour, but on a larger scale than is generally associated with this medium and using layer upon layer of pigment so that—in reproduction at any rate—his pictures appear to have the physical substance of oil paintings. Burra's work has been compared with that of George Grosz, whom he admired, but whereas Grosz bitterly castigated evil and ugliness, Burra concentrated on the picturesque aspects of his subjects. Particularly well known are his Harlem scenes of 1933–4, with their flamboyant streetwise dudes and other shady characters. Burra's style changed little, but around the mid-1930s his imagery underwent a radical change and he became fascinated with the bizarre and fantastic (Dancing Skeletons, 1934, Tate, London). Many of his recurrent images—such as the bird-man—and his manner of juxtaposing incongruous objects have a Surrealist air, and although he generally kept aloof from groups, he exhibited with the English Surrealists (he was also a member of Unit One, organized by his friend Paul Nash). The Spanish Civil War and the Second World War evoked a sense of tragedy in Burra that found expression in occasional religious pictures and during the 1950s and 1960s his interest turned from people to landscape. By this time he had achieved critical and financial success, but he reacted with sardonic humour towards his growing fame.
Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)