Edward Burra at Work, c. 1930. Copyright Estate of the Artist, c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd., London.

NEW YORK - Edward Burra’s Savoy Ballroom, Harlem 1934 returns to New York for 6 days. This dynamic and exciting work will then be sold at Sotheby’s Bond Street, on December 10th 2013. Painted by Burra on his first visit to America in October 1933, this work captures the nightlife, music and characters he found in a community that was still in the throes of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Savoy Ballroom opened on the 12th of March 1926, occupying an entire city block in central Harlem, from 140th to 141st Street 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). It was in the raucous environment of the Savoy that Burra found a real outlet for all of his passions.

“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.)

Edward Burra, Savoy Ballroom, Harlem, 1934. Estimate £300,000-500,000.

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. 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.

"New York would drive you into a fit…
[it] is like a Berwick Street that’s burst all bounds
everything here is more so’" (Edward Burra, letter to Barbara Ker Seymer, October 1933, in William Chappell (ed.), Well dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra, Gordon Fraser, London, 1985, p.84-85.)

Highlights Exhibition Sotheby’s, 1334 York Ave, New York, NY10021

Friday 1 November, 10am-5pm

Saturday 2 November, 10am-5pm

Sunday 3 November, 10am-5pm

Monday 4 November, 10am-5pm

Tuesday 5 November, 10am-5pm

Wednesday 6 November, 10am-12pm


Modern & Post-War British Art

London 10-11 December 2013

34-35 New Bond Street

London W1A 2AA