Palant House Gallery at Chichester, Sussex is where you can see a fantastic exhibition of the watercolour works of Edward Burra.

First, though, remember it is a very sloooooow train journey to Chichester from London, Victoria.  Maybe go by car?  But then you probably cannot park.

Anyway, we got there by lunchtime and had a job to find Pallant House Gallery, it is in North Pallant, down a little street called West Pallant, off South Street.  Apparently there is a very good restaurant there, called Field and Fork, but we did not try it out. No time.


Instead we went to Cafe Rouge and I did this pencil sketch, where the figure in the foreground reminded me of drawings of Mr Pickwick.

Chichester, Cafe Rouge diners


The Gallery is in a new building, and next to an 18th century house where the gallery was based originally. The Edward Burra show is upstairs and in galleries with low light because the paintings are watercolour.

You are probably aware of the kinds of paintings you will see.  There are some very large works, on papers stuck together.

 The first gallery has smaller work, and includes some of my favourites, of the bars and streets of Harlem and London.  Burra visited cities from his family home near Rye, Sussex and it seems he loved to travel.  The earlier works dated from the 1920s so presumably he went by train and sea.  Probably he liked to draw the dockhands and sailors en route.



 I was pleased to overhear the start of a talk, when arriving in the first gallery, from Simon Martin, Head of Curatorial Services.  Mr Martin addressed a small group of ladies, who kept giving us daggers looks because we dared to overhear the remarks.  Maybe they expected us to put our hands over our ears so we could not hear what he said!


 There were some good information labels in the galleries. I did not realize that Burra liked films so much, apparently he tried to go to the cinema two or three times a week.  One painting was of Mae West.  He also liked Hammer Horror films.  The later paintings are very strange and rather frightening, and sometimes show skeletons, skulls and figures with birds heads.


I saw one flower painting, which was itself very eerie and disturbing, with garish yellows.  Not your usual pretty, pretty flower stuff at all.


The later works often included views of rolling hills and motorways crossing moorlands and downs.  The lorries and cars were painted in almost a naive way.  Once again, these dark, brooding images were something you might find rather disturbing.  They were a far cry from the earlier works showing people enjoying life, in theatres, cafes, dance halls and streets.


Apparently Burra kept very close, lifelong friendships with the people he knew when a student at Chelsea Polytechnic and the Royal College.  He also knew Paul Nash, mainly because he lived quite near, and discussed art with him but I think I read that he did not liked Nash’s work.  Other painters who he admired include Gustave Moreau, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckman, Goya, Leger and Hogarth.

He was briefly associated with Surrealism.  But moved away from this.


According to the information in the gallery, Burra sometimes used postcards when painting, he also probably used his own photographs, some of which were on show in the gallery.  Hastings Harbour in the exhibition an example of his use of postcards.

He had an amazing visual memory, though and towards the end of his working life, liked to go out with his sister in her car, after which he could start a landscape painting from memory. That was his preferred method of working.


You might notice that the eyes of a lot of the figures, have a sideways look;  the pupils are right at the corner of the eye, as if his people cannot look anybody straight in the face.


There is a small selection of Burra’s main works here on display.  Obviously there is a lot more to be seen dotted around the world, and it is unfortunate that watercolour is such a transient medium, easily faded by light; maybe that is why major galleries cannot put more on display.

One thing I did miss seeing was more sketches.  There were a few pencil and pen sketches on show.

BOOK:  EDWARD BURRA,  Simon Martin

I bought this book, even though at £25 it is more than I like to pay!  But have started reading it and find it excellent, and very funny in places, where it quotes his letters which are really bitchy and witty.




Lucky enough to win free tickets to see this exhibition, which runs until 21 August 2011. I was not lucky enough to get a free book which goes with the exhibition, and like all art books, costs real money, so I had to do without it.

The exhibition is arranged in rooms which are not numbered but which have titles, for instance we start off in The Natural World, where there is a magnificent study of sea shells and coral by a woman artist, Sarah Stone, painted in 18th century. Quite startling in its modern look and strong vibrant colour.

Some familiar and favourite artists have a good example of their watercolours, for instance John Piper and Edward Burra and of course Cotman. Edward Burra’s strange ‘Mexican Church’ in gouache and ink wash was sombre, loose and very dark and I noticed the colours pink, ochre, green and black. I find some of Burra’s works quite macabre, except for the landscapes and the early cafe and street paintings (which were not shown).

There was a creepy Burne Jones in the Exhibition Watercolour room.

Exploring the Medium was interesting because it showed some artists’ paint boxes, brushes and paints, including those of Turner. I noticed his two brushes had long handles, like those that I use for oil painting. Also shown was Whistler’s box.

By the time I got to the room Watercolour and War, I decided that it was really a very good show. There was strong, interesting and new painting which made me feel like going home and getting out my watercolours and gouache, and even looking through some old work. So – success, you might think! This is what art exhibitions should do, inspire.

The painting of Belsen extermination camp was too painful to look at, by Eric Taylor. Burra, again, had created a work of voluptuous soldiers, called Soldiers at Rye, dated 1941. His soldiers all have very rotund buttocks. Maybe he liked soldiers.

By the end of this exhibition, which as is usual in Tate Britain, is large and demanding, I was expecting to find some modern and Brit Art kinds of works, and I was right. The write-ups about these last works, which I read in one of the catalogue copies helpfully left out on the seats, were long and convoluted. Is there a particular qualification that these authors have to attain so as to make obscure and profound sounding sentences about works that cannot be otherwise justified, I wonder?

In the room Abstraction and Improvisation, there is a HUGE work by Sandra Blow dated 1988, in acrylic and collage. It has a dominating presence, from sheer size and the huge red splodge. A painting by Roger Hilton of 1973 of two dogs had the advantage of being funny,

However, I found Karla Black’s large work ‘Opportunities for Girls, funny. It reminded me of a huge pink squishy bra. It is made of mixed media and dominates the end of the last room, hanging from the ceiling on cords, suspended in air. I made a very quick sketch of it.

Tate Britain, sketch

Sketch from Tate Britain watercolour show

With the modern works was displayed some of Turner’s small sketches, of an abstract nature. According to the notes at the Turner exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery exhibition in 2009, Turner would never have allowed these sketches to be exhibited. They are working notes and memory-joggers, but we have them in this room, as much as to say: “Look, Turner did blobby stuff which has nothing representational apparent, just like the artists showing here today have produced.”