Teeming with dynamism, vitality, and excitement, The Savoy Ballroom, Harlem, was painted by Burra after his first visit to America in October 1933. He travelled with the painter Sophie Fedorovitch and the photographer Olivia Wyndham, and while there he lodged in Harlem with actress Edna Thomas. The cultural diversity he found in Harlem was to have an important effect on his work, and Wyndham, who was particularly well ingrained in the Harlem community, proved to be an invaluable resource for Burra, introducing him to all the amusements of the neighbourhood. Burra was already a keen observer of the urban environment in Europe and was greatly interested in black culture, rooted in his early love of jazz and in his admiration for the black dancers he saw in London in the 1920s. Consequently, the young artist was blown over by the night life, music, and characters he found in a community that was still in the throes of the Harlem Renaissance.
Burra painted a number of scenes of Harlem, including Strip Tease (fig.1., sold in these rooms, 13th December 2007, lot 61, for the then world record price of £490,900), and Harlem (1934, Tate Collection, London). However, it is clear from the wonderfully detailed present work that in the raucous environment of the Savoy he found a real outlet for all of his passions. As he wrote to his close friend Barbara Ker Seymer: ‘We went to the Savoy dance Hall the other night you would go mad I’ve never in my life seen such a display… I’ve never seen such wonderful dancing’ (letter October 1933, in William Chappell (ed.), Well dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra, Gordon Fraser, London, 1985, p.84).
The Savoy Ballroom opened on the 12th March 1926, occupying an entire city block in central Harlem, from 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue. It was one of the first racially integrated public places in the United States, and its plush lounges, pink interiors, mirrored walls, large sprung wooden dance floors, and dual bandstands, attracted up to 5,000 patrons a night. It was an enclave for rising gifted and passionate black dancers, some of whom were scouted for the ballet and Broadway, and innumerable dance styles originated and were made famous at the venue including: the Flying Charleston, Jive, Rhumboogie and Lindy Hop (apparently named after Charles Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927).
Clothes, hairstyles and mannerisms were always features that Burra noted closely and this outstanding painting is filled with Burra’s typical eye for detail. The wide dance floor and busy seating area offers a wonderful range of studies. The viewer is immediately confronted by the face of a stylish woman in a bejewelled hat, so close to us in vicinity that she becomes our seating partner, positioned across from us at one of the small cocktail tables. Her observations of the dancers on the floor encourage the viewer to do the same, and we are immediately drawn into the lively scene: we see patrons sipping on cocktails and smoking in the foreground, couples twirling - their legs a whir on the dance floor, and the energetic band being directed in the background. The clientele are finely attired, and Burra portrays a range of skin tones, each figure individualized, the depictions never lapsing into caricature. Considering it was produced at a time when racial tension (particularly in the US) was still rife, the work is in many ways progressive, and echoes the paintings being produced by African American artists during the Harlem Renaissance. In its originality and eccentricity it is truly a British artist’s unique take on an important moment in American history.
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