The antithesis of marriage in the traditional sense, the painting is undoubtedly a celebration of Burra’s world and the era of the Bright Young Things. It is highly significant that the painting was acquired from his very first one man exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1929 by his friend Olivia Wyndham, socialite and professional party-girl who famously arrived at Norman Hartnell’s 1928 circus party as a snake charmer with real snakes entwined around her body. Burra and Billy Chappell met her through Frederick Ashton and her parties were infamous: ‘Well old sport Miss Wyndham gave a cocktail party last Friday and everybody was there the Kings Road & Sloane sq were lined with plainclothes detectives to guard Lady Dean Pauls priceless diamond ankle watch & the princess Haines pearls were the sinecure of all eyes till the eyes saw double which was very soon. from what I hear in my radio grammes they all went down like ninepins (and it was suspected that aphrodisiac had been added to the cocktails)...’ (letter to Billy Chappell, 5th March 1929, quoted in Well Dearie, ibid., p.55). Even Evelyn Waugh noted one of her soirées in his diary (which he doesn’t appear to have enjoyed): ‘It was not enough of an orgy. Masses of little lesbian tarts and toyboys. Only one fight...poor Hat [Brian Howard] looking like a tragedy queen...’ (quoted in Jane Stevenson, op.cit., p.84).
Olivia was particularly close to one of Burra’s best friends, Barbara Ker-Seymer who went to work for her as a photographer’s assistant and became one of her many lovers. Indeed, Olivia later engaged in her own Marriage à la Mode: having moved to New York in 1929, she became the 4th wife of Howland Spencer in 1930 whilst she was at the same time head over heels in love with the black American actress Edna Thomas. It was with Olivia and Edna (and remarkably, Edna’s husband Lloyd - another Marriage à la Mode) that Burra stayed when he first visited the city in 1933 and was catapulted into the heart of the Harlem renaissance. It is tantalizing to imagine that Olivia brought Marriage à la Mode with her to New York, a city that excited Burra beyond comparison as is evident by the pulsating energy of his Harlem pictures such as Striptease (fig. 1, 1934, sold in these rooms 13th December 2007, lot 61) and Savoy Ballroom (1934, sold in these rooms, 10th December 2013, lot 24). In any case, Olivia later gave Barbara Ker-Seymour the picture and thence to her long term partner Barbara Roett.
Hogarth would have relished in the gossip mill of Burra’s world and the younger artist perhaps repays the compliment by using Hogarth's more formal The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, (fig. 2, 1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) as a basic blueprint for the compositional arrangement of Marriage à la Mode: Hogarth’s cherubs with their freshly scented cornucopia of flowers are replaced with two floating acrobatic children who douse the bride and groom with water whilst the 18th century apathetic bystanders have been supplanted by a mother of the bride on the far left who looks distinctly out of place amongst the more fashionable guests, as a bird hatches out of her hat. A mischievous swipe no doubt at the doddering old folk of Burra's hometown, Rye, in Sussex, which he dubbed Tinkerbell Town.
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