A gift from the Artist to Conrad Aiken
A gift from the above to Francis Biddle (US Attorney General under the Roosevelt administration) and his wife, the poet, Katherine Garrison Chapin Biddle, Washington DC, circa 1950, and thence by descent to the present owner
Probably painted circa 1946-50, the present work is a remarkable re-emergence of an unknown work by one of the most individual British artists of the twentieth century. Given by Burra to his close friend Conrad Aiken, the American poet, and his wife, the painting is apparently previously unpublished and unexhibited.
Burra and Aiken first met in Rye in 1931 at the introduction of Paul Nash, and it was proposed that Burra should illustrate the forthcoming edition of Aiken’s poem 'John Deth'. Although the whole project foundered, Aiken’s poem was the source for one of Burra’s finest paintings, John Deth (Coll. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). The combination of excess, debauchery and the macabre is the perfect exemplar of Burra’s art, and Burra intended that it should be given to Aiken, but it was inadvertently sold from the Mayor Gallery exhibition when it was first shown. The relationship between the poet and painter was to last for many years, with Burra making a number of trips to America to visit, the last being in 1955. Aiken’s wife Mary’s recollection of their friendship with Burra is memorably recounted in her recollection, ‘The Best Painter of the American Scene’ (published in William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, Andre Deutsch, London 1982, pp.84-99), and the sense of unplanned expeditions to the most louche spots that could be found, and the painter’s delight in such places, leaps from the page.
Café Scene takes as its subject a rather dark and slightly dubious café-bar, and is perfectly populated with the cast of unusual, roguish and downright odd characters that were Burra’s metier. The barman and one of his customers have the form of the ‘birdmen’ that appear in Burra’s paintings of the late 1940s, such as Birdmen and Pots (Coll. Hove Art Gallery) of 1946, while the rakish central male figure has an air not unlike that found in the Harlem dandies of the 1930s. Curiously, and adding a sense of unremitting oddness to the proceedings, two dwarf figures with an attendant dwarf cat also feature, barely even reaching the level of the bar. In her reminiscence, Mary Aiken recalls an occasion in the Silver Dollar Bar in Boston (the source for a superb painting of the same title in the collection of York City Art Gallery) where Burra spent an age looking up and down the aisles for a midget regular, proclaiming the ancient tradition that to touch him would bring good luck (ibid., p.86). In the midst of this unusual cast stands a peculiarly two-dimensional female figure, almost a cardboard cut-out amongst the other exceptionally well-modelled patrons. Burra had long introduced figures that stand in complete opposition to the rest of a scene, and the way in which they are accepted, and, as in this case, courted, aids the sense of bohemianism inherent in the image far more than simply exaggerating one of his ‘standard’ characters could have done.
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