- Edward Burra
- The Old Viaduct
- stamped with Artist's signature
- pencil and watercolour
- 80 by 134.5cm.; 31½ by 53in.
- Executed in 1970.
Landscape was very much a part of Burra’s work from an early stage, but it is only towards the end of his career when it became a subject to which he devoted a concerted effort. At this time Burra was becoming increasingly frustrated with urban life, finding it more and more difficult to negotiate the swelling crowds and cobbled streets with his deteriorating joints. In the mid-1960s he began taking regular motoring trips around Britain with his sister Anne. She would collect Burra in a car and would make all the arrangements, so he needed only to come along for the ride. Along the way, Burra would often ask Anne to stop so he could get out and take in the landscape. As his friend William ‘Billy’ Chappell recounted: 'It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted by some especially splendid spread of hills, moorland, and deep valleys. He sat very still and his face appeared completely impassive. He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze' (quoted in William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra, A Painter Remembered by His Friends, Andre Deutsch Ltd, in association with the Lefevre Gallery, 1982, p.112). Burra’s memory was quite famously sharp, and he would take in all he saw along the way to distil and incorporate into his works - distorting, altering and adding to what he had seen using his own particularly inventive manner.
While Burra thoroughly enjoyed these motoring holidays, he was also an early voice for the negative aspects of motoring, a mode of transport and a pastime that had captured the imagination of the wider British public. Burra felt there was huge inefficiency in the consumerist dream of everyone owning their own motor car. He saw first-hand how our increased reliance on automobiles, particularly for the transport of goods, meant rising need for infrastructure which was quickly changing the face of the British landscape. Many of Burra’s late landscapes such as Snowdonia No.2 (1971) imply an ominous presence, or in works such as Machines Quarrelling (1968-9), are more explicit in their comment on the destruction of this ‘green and pleasant land.’
Painted in 1970, the execution of The Old Viaduct contrasts with Burra’s earlier works, which are painted tightly, with a matte finish and opaqueness, feeling similar in many ways to tempera. Here Burra uses the watercolour medium to an entirely different effect - he utilizes thin washes of pigment, often blurs the boundaries, and allows forms to become almost translucent, encouraging a prevailing sense of disquiet and transience. At one stage Billy Chappell questioned why Burra’s figures were becoming increasingly diaphanous and he replied with his typically cutting wit: ‘Don’t you find as you get older, you start seeing through everything’ (the Artist, quoted in William Chappell (ed.), ibid., p.117).