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Edward Burra
Large Print Labels

Room 17

Room 17 (Clockwise from left)
Costume design for Carnival sequence
in 'Don Juan' (Ray Powell)
1948

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection
In 1948 Burra received a commission from the choreographer Frederick Ashton to design the décor and costumes for the ballet 'Don Juan' at Covent Garden. His vibrant striped costumes and beak-like masks for the Masquers in the carnival sequence were clearly inspired by Venetian 'Commedia dell' Arte' characters. Their beak-like masks gave them a sinister presence, which recalled the macabre paintings Burra had created earlier in the 1940s such as 'Birdmen and Pots', on show in Room 14.

Design for a backcloth for the ballet
'A Day in a Southern Port (Rio Grande)'
1931
Watercolour on paper
James L Gordon Collection

In 1931 Burra designed the sets for the ballet 'Rio Grande: A Day in a Southern Port' for the Camargo Society. The society had been founded by the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova and her husband the British economist Maynard Keynes to further the interests of the English ballet. The choreography was by Frederick Ashton with jazz-influenced music composed by Constant Lambert, based on a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell. Burra created a dockside scene of sailors and tarts, inspired by the atmosphere of Toulon in Southern France. The backcloth design was based on the dolphin fountain at Raymond's Bar in Toulon.



Unrealised set design for a ballet
sequence from 'Aladdin'
1933

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection
In 1933 Burra worked with Frederick Ashton for the impresarios Julian Wylie and James Tate on designs for the pantomime Aladdin at the Empire in Leeds. This heady oriental set, with its Chinoiserie details and enormous red poppies, was for a dance sequence based on dreams inspired by opium. It relates to other images of shady opium dens that he painted at this time. It was never performed but Ashton described Burra's designs as having a 'magical mix of fact and fantasy.'

Backcloth design for Simply Heavenly
– Scene in Harlem
1957

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection
Burra's last set design was for a musical comedy set in Harlem called 'Simply Heavenly'. It was based on a play by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London in May 1958. Burra was an ideal choice for designer as he knew Harlem well, having stayed there in the early 1930s and produced memorable depictions of its street life
and nightlife.

Set design for Act 4 of Carmen
(outside the Bull Ring)
1947

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection
'Carmen' was one of the first operas to be staged at the Royal Opera House after the Second World War. Burra's designs drew on his first-hand experience of travelling in Spain in the 1930s, which had inspired paintings of bullfights and flamenco dancers. His set designs included architectural backdrops loosely based on the exterior of the Moorish bullring in Granada and street scenes in Seville.

Front Cloth for Don Quixote 1950

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection
Burra's front cloth for 'Don Quixote' features the protagonist heading out into the Spanish Plains, with Sancho Panza behind. The choreographer Ninette de Valois recalled: 'There stands out clearly a special memory: the magic front-cloth for 'Don Quixote'. Rarely does there appear such force and spiritual strength in a stage set painting. Every line conveying purpose with a defiance that is highlighted; a fate framed in ennobling colours – whatever the outcome. We do not get such cloths today in the theatre.'

Costume design for Frasquita and Mercedes in 'Carmen' Acts 1 and 2 (Audrey Bowman and Constance Shacklock) 1947

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection
The choreographer Frederick Ashton observed: "A close examination of Burra's costume designs offers – apart from the purely aesthetic pleasure in the strength and beauty of the draughtsmanship and the perfect control of watercolour – a question. Is it possible for a dancer to approximate to such statements? Each sketch is the creation of a real person; a beggar, a bandit, a street seller, the gypsies of 'Carmen' and 'Don Quixote', the tarts and the rough boys from 'Miracle in the Gorbals'. Each is a human being – solidly and disturbingly alive."

Set model by Edward Burra for the ballet 'Miracle in the Gorbals', Sadler's Wells Ballet at the Princes Theatre 1944

Card, wood and watercolour

V&A Museum, Theatre Collections
Burra's set design for 'Miracle in the Gorbals' evoked the grim atmosphere of the closely packed Gorbals tenements and industrial dockyards. This set model conveys Burra's attention for incidental detail: the dark stairwells, the fish shop frontage, and washing hanging from balconies. Ninette de Valois later recalled: 'Even the strange lights of a Glasgow winter, fighting their way through the grey gloom, were not forgotten. They were noted by the artist and went into the corners of 'the Gorbals' stage set, to emphasize moments of exhilaration or despondency, and eventually to the French how very 'English' we were…'

Front Cloth for 'Miracle in the Gorbals' (hanging above set model) 1944

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection

Costume design for the inhabitants of the Gorbals (Douglas Stuart, Eric Hyrst, Anthony Burke, Henry Danton, Philip Chatfield, Franklyn White) 1944

Watercolour on paper

James L Gordon Collection
Burra's ability to present ordinary working-class people with individuality and dignity made him an obvious choice to design the sets and costumes for Robert Helpmann's ballet 'Miracle in the Gorbals' during the Second World War. The ballet had a score by Arthur Bliss, and was based on a story by Michael Benthall. It was a loose Christian allegory based in the Glasgow slums: a young girl who has committed suicide is brought back to life by a Christ-like stranger, who is subsequently murdered by an angry mob that has been incited to violence by an evil Minister.

Harlem Theatre 1933

Watercolour on paper

Private collection, courtesy
the Mayor Gallery, London
Striptease 1934

Watercolour and gouache on paper

Frank Cohen Collection
Burra loved the spectacle of performance, and was just as interested in depicting the audience and their reactions as the action on stage. This is an image all about voyeurism and spectatorship. Eyes glow in the dark, and even the mask above the proscenium arch seems to be leering at the semi-nude dancer. The scene was based upon the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, which featured a racy review called 'Paris in Harlem' about which Burra wrote to a friend: 'it must be seen
to be believed.'

Mae West 1934–5

Watercolour on paper

Private collection, courtesy Lefevre Fine Art
Burra was an avid cinema-goer and his diaries in the 1920s and 1930s often record several trips to the cinema in a single week, ranging from Hollywood extravaganzas to less mainstream German and French films. He avidly read 'Photoplay', one of the first celebrity magazines, and collected postcards of the film stars he particularly admired, in particular Mae West. This painting was inspired by her camp performance in the 1934 film 'Belle of the Nineties'.

Top Left

Sir Gerald du Maurier, illustration for


'The ABC of the Theatre'
1932

Ink on paper

National Portrait Gallery, purchased 1996
This drawing shows the actor Sir Gerald du Maurier (1873–1934) and in 'The ABC of the Theatre' it was accompanied by the line: 'D is du Maurier – beau comme la prose – plus il change son role, plus il est la meme chose' (handsome like the prose, the more he changes his role, the more he is the same thing)

Bottom Left

Hannen Swaffer, illustration for


'The ABC of the Theatre'
1932

Ink on paper

Rye Art Gallery
In 1932 Burra was commissioned to illustrate the 'ABC of the Theatre', a volume of comic verse by the poet Humbert Wolfe. His portraits follow conventions of caricature, with the protagonists depicted with overlarge heads and small bodies, but surrounded by incidental details closely informed by Burra's watercolours of cafés, bars and nightclubs. Hannen Swaffer (1879–1962) was the drama critic of the Daily Herald. In the book this image is accompanied by the verse: H is for Hannen. Will anyone offer a credible reason why God thought of Swaffer?'

Top Right

John Galsworthy, illustration for


'The ABC of the Theatre'
1932

Ink on paper

National Portrait Gallery, purchased 1996
This drawing of the celebrated novelist and playwright (1967–1933) was accompanied by the verse: 'G is for Galsworthy. We could do after all with a little less worth and rather more gall'

Bottom Right
The Critics, illustration for
'The ABC of the Theatre'
1932

Ink on paper



National Portrait Gallery, purchased 1996
This weary group of critics queuing at a theatre bar shows from left to right: St. John Greer Ervine (1883–1971), Ivor Brown (1891–1974), Langbridge Morgan (1894–1958) and James Evershed Agate (1877–1947). In 'The ABC of the Theatre' it was accompanied by Humbert Wolfe's verse, 'E is for Ervine, Brown, Morgan and Agate looking patiently round for something to nag at.'


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