LONDON - Edward Burra’s Striptease, Harlem returns to New York for four days and will be on view at Sotheby's from the 1–4 November.

With the beat of jazz, intoxicating mix of sex, desire, fashion and money, Burra's witty and bright design takes us back in time, deep into the nightlife of Harlem at the height of the cultural renaissance. In its originality and eccentricity it is truly a British artist’s unique take on an important moment in American history and will be sold in November’s Modern & Post-War British Art sale at Sotheby’s Bond Street, on 18th November 2013.

Edward Burra, Striptease, Harlem (1934), £600,000 – 800,000. Modern & Post-War British Art, London, 18 November 2014.

Despite suffering from a rare and acute form of rheumatoid arthritis and pernicious anaemia, Burra loved to travel. He first visited America in October 1933, travelling to New York with the painter Sophie Fedorovitch and the photographer Olivia Wyndham. Lodging in Harlem with Edna Thomas, a well known black actress and friend of Barbara Ker-Seymer, and later moving to the lower east side with Frederick Ashton who was rehearsing for Virgil Thompson's all-black opera, Burra was well placed to see all that Harlem had to offer. During this period Harlem was a cultural centre, drawing black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars from around the country. Burra fell in love with the vibrancy of the metropolis, the energy of the streets and cultural diversity of the clubs and revelled in the decadent world of the characters he observed. In his own poetic way Burra documented his vivid impressions of Harlem, capturing a neighbourhood famed for its music and nightlife. This was a very different place to the quiet Sussex town in Rye where Burra was raised by his upper middle-class family and where he would return after this trip to his studio overlooking the British countryside to paint his memories of Harlem. His excitement is evident in Burra's letters to his friends:

‘New York would drive you into a fit…we do a little shopping on 116th St every morning there are about 10 Woolworths of all sorts also 40 cinemas & Apollo burlesk featuring "Paris in Harlem" which I am plotting to go to but won't be allowed to I can see... must be seen to be believed... 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.83-84.)

Edward Burra – as ‘Lady Bureaux’ – photographed by Barbara Ker-Seymer in 1934. Photograph courtesy of the Family of Barbara Ker-Seymer.  

Burra certainly did make it to the Apollo Theatre despite thinking he would not be allowed as is evident from this watercolour – Striptease, Harlem which depicts a rather raunchy burlesque show at the theatre. Interestingly for this period, although the audience is predominantly black, the dancer is white, possibly Parisian as Burra mentions in his letter wanting to see ‘Paris in Harlem’ at the Apollo. Burra was an avid collector of Jazz records and he took every opportunity to see musicals and cabarets and would have relished in the burlesque which he saw while in New York.  His delight in the scene is evident in this work with its focus on the various characters in the bar.