Edward Burra's Dark Side : The Danse Macabre

As part of our focus on Surrealist artists this month -- and to coincide with our third 'Surrealism Sunday' -- we are sharing an extract from Simon Martin's monograph on Edward Burra

This book represents the first full-scale monograph on Edward Burra, positioning the artist - who has been somewhat neglected by histories of modern art because his singular vision was often at odds with the mainstream art world - as a major figure in the history of 20th-century art...

Dockside Cafe, Marseilles, 1929, © Estate of Edward Burra, courtesy Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London


‘Everything looks menacing; I’m always expecting something calamitous to happen.’  - Edward Burra1

According to John Aiken, ‘macabre’ was one of Edward Burra’s favourite words.2 Perhaps this is hardly surprising, for a sense of the macabre pervades much of Burra’s visual output, particularly from the 1930s onwards. Sometimes it is just a hint of sinister menace in a café scene or a seemingly innocuous still life, but it also emerges from the shadows to be manifested in ghoulish monsters and dancing skeletons. Although these images often have a humorous tone, the darkness is there nevertheless. When a journalist from the Boston Herald interviewed the artist in 1937, asking him why he painted such images, Burra reportedly replied: ‘I don’t know just how it got there. It was just bad feeling, I guess.’3 The resulting interview appeared with the headline ‘Just Bad Feeling, Surrealist Says in Explaining Grotesque Creations.’

Although the strangeness of some of his images led Burra to be labelled a Surrealist, he was wary of the association. He signed the International Surrealist Bulletin No.4 published by the English Surrealist Group in 1936, when his work was included in both the International Surrealist Exhibition in London and Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But his involvement was brief, and he later told the jazz musician George Melly: ‘I didn’t like being told what to think dearie.’4 However, Surrealism was undoubtedly a strong influence on his work, particularly through his friendship with Paul Nash. In 1929, he and Nash began to experiment with collage, at the same moment that Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró were also exploring the medium. He collaborated with Nash on a collage called Rough on Rats (1930) in which a monster stabs a composite female figure with pea pods for legs and a Classical column for a torso, almost like the Surrealist parlour game ‘Cadavre exquis’ (‘exquisite corpse’).

The fascination with machine parts in Surrealist magazines that Burra read, such as Documents and Variétés, formed a source of inspiration for The Eruption of Venus (1930), in which he collaged images of machines as mask-like heads for two women in an interior. He described it and his new collage tendency to his friend Barbara Ker-Seymer in a letter of January 1930:

Thank you for the two daintie pc’s they will be so useful for my new pictures we never bother to paint in this part now we just stick things on instead. I have such a twee one started of two ladys walking along with pieces of motor engine for heads & a table at the side made of anita paiges legs with a drawn in top and a large dishful of heads reposing on its fascinating.5

The art historian Andrew Causey has noted how the January 1930 issue of Variétés had featured photographs of machines relating to the human head such as eye-testing equipment, and so it is likely that this was the direct inspiration.6 The Eruption of Venus is an enigmatic image and it is difficult to ascertain what the narrative might be, or how these strange women relate to the erupting volcano across the bay, or to the nubile women who appear to be displaying their wares in the background. It was to be the sole representation of Burra’s Surrealist work that was reproduced in a Surrealist special of the French avant-garde magazine Cahiers d’Art in 1938.

The Duenna, 1930, Watercolour on paper, 
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (on loan from a private collection)

The possibilities of Surrealism and the collage technique undoubtedly liberated Burra’s style, particularly in the way he would play with space and seemingly random shapes, and influenced his watercolours, such as the series of pictures of duennas (elderly Spanish governesses or chaperones) that he painted in the early 1930s. In The Duenna (1930) Burra has moved on from the collaged machine heads of The Eruption of Venus to painting baroque arabesques that suggest insect heads. His duennas may have elaborate fans and outfits, but they have metamorphosed from elderly spinsters into bizarre creatures with mask-like faces that suggest insect and birds, while little crabs and beetles scurry around their clawed feet. It would seem that in Burra’s mind the duennas, the guardians of youthful morality and good conduct, are to be mocked. Max Ernst’s bird-headed Surrealist figures, such as his Monument aux Oiseaux (1927) and Birds (1920) were clearly an inspiration for Burra at this time,7 but he was equally aware of a tradition of artistic metamorphosis stretching back from nineteenth-century satirists to Hieronymus Bosch, in particular the bird-men in Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1500). Burra’s duenna pictures predated his first visit to Spain in 1933 and although it is possible that they were partly inspired by Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comic opera The Duennas, set in Seville, it is likely that the starting point was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In Chapter 27, the protagonist is engaged in a discussion about the merits of duennas, during which he says: ‘I don’t care a wild fig for all the Duennas in the world.’8

In early 1932 Burra wrote a letter signed ‘Madame Mata Hari’ to Barbara Ker-Seymer from London, on notepaper from the Palace Hotel, Place Jules Ferry, in Lyon:

I do hope you like my new fangled pictures Im just crazy over bird folk now & in Lyon right this moment am studying bird folk from my window in the palace ... & of course you are coming to my little exhibition on the 24 or 25 May of bird lore at the Leicester Galls you soitinly must not miss this.9

Bird folk appear from time-to-time in Burra’s paintings hereafter. In the mid-1940s he painted a series of pictures with strange ‘bird men’ such as Soldiers at Rye (1941) and Bird Men and Pots (1946). With their faces covered but human hands revealed, it is not clear whether these figures are actually part-bird and part human, or whether they are just men wearing Venetian masks from the commedia dell’arte as in Jacques Callot’s etchings I Balli di Sfessania (c.1622), but either way, it results in a theatrical sense of unease that there is something sinister hidden under the masks and cloaks. Burra’s designs for the 1948 production of the ballet Don Juan featured dancers in beaked commedia dell’arte masks, and so it was evidently something that preoccupied him at this time. [...]

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Burra clearly relished the dark side. He liked reading Gothic novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Tower of London, the works of Cyril Tourneur and John Marston’s The Scourge of Villanie. He relished the novels featuring Fantômas, the nineteenth-century French villain beloved of the Surrealists, and from his youth was a huge devotee of science-fiction, especially the novels of the cult American author H.P. Lovecraft who wrote horror and fantasy, specialising in a genre known as ‘weird fiction’. Lovecraft was led by the notion of ‘cosmicism’ or ‘cosmic horror’, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds. Following his earlier macabre stories, from 1925 Lovecraft wrote horror fiction about the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ – a pantheon of horrors and deities. One of these amorphous, gelatinous monsters appears in the distance of Burra’s painting The Visitors (1962–3). He also enjoyed watching horror movies, and in 1948 designed the sets for the film A Piece of Cake, which featured a horror sequence in the ghostly ‘Doomsday Hall’. During the 1960s he wrote to a friend of how:

Have been going to nothing but Horror pictures! Mostly made by Hammer films in Technicolour with ‘real’ sets & very gothic ‘Rasputin the mad monk’ ‘The Reptile’ 2 stories freely adapted from H.P. Lovecraft! Freida Jackson held forth in a very high class English accent from a 4 poster bed heavily (& happily) hung with thick crêpe & suddenly burst out with an axe & a completely discomposed face made of foam rubber and attacked the heroine. She really gave me quite a turn – it was called the Light from beyond Space & the plants in the conservatory began to strangle people as nameless things were carefully preserved in the cellar: Dracula & Fu Manchu & one about Zombies by Boris Karloff dear old soul I have a mania for these things.15

Monsters and skeletons pervade his work from around 1930 onwards. An exhibition review of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1932 reported how Burra: ‘cultivates an attitude of what might be called the juvenile macabre. The terms of design are modern, but the content of the designs is a mixture of Stevenson and Ruthless Rhymes and “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” might be the motto of the exhibition.’16 The reviewer was presumably referring to works such as John Deth (Homage to Conrad Aiken) (1931), a ghoulish scene replete with skeletons and grotesque figures. Paul Nash had introduced Burra to Aiken, an American who had a home in Rye, and soon after Burra produced his homage as part of a group of decorations for an unrealised deluxe edition of Aiken’s poem from which it takes its name.17 The painting relates to section seven of part one, which describes the scene at the Star-Tree Inn and explores the death wish in each of the visitors:

The girl-faced flute player tipped his flute;
And while the rout stood chilled and mute,

Blew across it a gleeful note
Like rainy eve in blackbird’s throat;
Beating the air with feet like wings:

The fiddlers struck the buzzing strings,
And sang, and nodded polished skulls,
While round them frolicked the frumps and trulls.
The bishop passed them with a caper,
Waving aloft a learned paper.
Behind him tripped the sad-eyed vicar
Who beamed on Millicent, the liquor
Seething his blood to frothy ichor.
‘Come Millicent, my spangled queen!
Come thump your shivering tambourine –
And dance to the realm unseen!’
But Millicent gave his arm a shove:
No, no! it’s not the dead I love!

Burra clearly had been looking at German Neue Sachlichkeit artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix who were satirising the politics and society of Weimar Germany, but the picture also references a series of prints after the Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger, which had also influenced Aiken.18 The series illustrated the late-medieval allegory on the universality of death known as ‘The Dance of Death’ (or ‘Danse Macabre’ in French and ‘Totentanz’ in German [Pl. 76]). In the images the dead summon representatives from all walks of life to dance to the grave, to remind people of the fragility of life.19 It is tempting to suggest parallels between Burra’s own life and the sixteenth-century ‘Dance of Death’. During the Black Death and Hundred Years War in France the possibility of sudden death not only increased the desire for penitence, but also provoked a desire for amusement while it was possible. Burra’s fragile physical health meant that death could never be far from his mind, no matter how much he tried to ignore it, while visiting hedonistic nightspots and dance clubs, albeit as a spectator. It would seem that Burra’s interest in the macabre derived in part from his acute awareness of his own mortality. His gallows humour could perhaps be explained by Sigmund Freud’s 1927 essay ‘Humour’ (Der Humor) in which he claimed: ‘The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.’20

Beelzebub, c.1937–8 Watercolour on paper, 
154.9x111.8cm, Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art

This gallows humour and pleasure in the ‘danse macabre’ were literally manifested in Dancing Skeletons (1934, Pl. 62). The art historian Andrew Causey has noted how Burra’s inspiration for the work appears to have been drawn from a wide range of sources: the corpses hanging from a gallows on the horizon recall a photograph of hanged rebels in Africa that was reproduced in the Belgian magazine Variétés in November 1928 while the humorous dancing skeletons not only recall skulls in the paintings of the Belgian symbolists James Ensor and Félicien Rops, which were also reproduced in Variétés, but a short cartoon from the Silly Symphony series by the Walt Disney studio called The Skeleton Dance (1929, Pl. 77) in which skeletons emerge from gravestones to dance in the moonlight.

The year before he painted Dancing Skeletons Burra had made his first visit to Spain with his friends, Conrad Aiken and the author Malcolm Lowry, staying in Granada where he would have seen the frescoes by Juan Sánchez Cotán in the Carthusian monastery of La Cartuja depicting the torture and hanging of monks. The baroque religious paintings and hyper-real polychromatic sculptures that Burra saw in Spain in 1933, and on subsequent trips in 1935 and 1936, undoubtedly influenced his work in the mid-1930s. But it wasn’t just the paintings by Cotán and other Spanish artists such as El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán and especially Francisco de Goya that affected him, but also seeing the grotesque images by Flemish artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the Prado Museum in Madrid. [...]

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Perhaps more than any other British artist of the twentieth-century, Burra was able to express the intangible sense of the uncanny, the darkness and violence that characterised his century and the ancient spirits that dwell in a place or a thing. His extraordinary visions were shaped both by the inspiration of artists of the past such as Bosch, Goya, Holbein and Brueghel, and the novels and horror movies of his time. But more than anything they were formed by his extraordinarily fertile imagination. Yet, even at their most threatening, Burra’s images maintained a humorous edge. As George Melly observed: ‘His torturers, his bullies, his soldiers, some of his phantasmagoria are evil, but many of his creatures are simply louche and disreputable. He loved naughtiness. He enjoyed depravity and bathed it in a glamorous eccentric light. He was acquainted with imps as well as demons.’29


This extract was taken from 'Edward Burra', written by Simon Martin.  

If the teaser has you hooked, find the book on our website:


Hardback • 176 Pages • Size: 270 × 228 × 23 mm
ISBN: 9781848220904 • Publication: October 28, 2011










1. John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1973, p.35.

2. John Aiken, ‘A Memoir’, in William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by His Friends, Andre Deutsch in association with the Lefevre Gallery, London, 1982, p.50.

3. M.J. Rosenau, ‘Just Bad Feeling, Surrealist Says in Explaining Grotesque Creations’, Boston Herald, Sunday, 7 March 1937.

4. George Melly, ‘Edward Burra’, in Edward Burra: Hayward Gallery, London, 1 August–29 September 1985, exh. cat., Arts Council, London, 1985, p.12.

5. Burra to Barbara Ker-Seymer, 23 January 1930. Anita Paige was a Hollywood star, famed for her appearance in silent movies in the 1920s and early 1930s.

6. Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Phaidon, Oxford, 1985, pp 28–9.

7. Ernst’s Monument aux Oiseaux was reproduced in Cahiers d’Art, no.2, 1928, where Burra is likely to have seen it.

8. Burra was very keen on Don Quixote and later created set designs for the ballet production (Pls 128–9), which featured several more conventional duennas.

9. Burra to Barbara Ker-Seymer, 1932, in William Chappell (ed.), Well Dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra, Gordon Fraser Gallery, London, 1985, p.77.


15. TGA 8913.14; Edward Burra to Seymour Lawrence, 17 August 1966.

16. TGA 939.8.3; 1 June 1932.

17. Written in 1922–4 and published in the collection, Clifford Aiken, John Deth, A Metaphysical Legend, and Other Poems, Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1930.

18. Andrew Causey also suggests the influence of the English satirical artist E.F. Burney whose work was included in an exhibition shown at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in December 1931. See Causey, Edward Burra, p.50.

19. The woodcuts were made from Holbein’s designs by Hans Lützelberger (published in 1538). The celebrated image of The Dance of Death that is often ascribed to Holbein has been reattributed to Michael Wolgemut (1434–1519).

20. Sigmund Freud, ‘Humour’, 1927, in Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, vol. 3, Hogarth, London, 1957, p.162.


29. George Melly, in Chappell, Edward Burra, p.11.