Harlem Scene, 1934–5, Watercolour on paper, Private collection Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art © Estate of the Artist c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd., London
For much of his life Burra lived in the picturesque Sussex town of Rye, which formed a base for his travels to such diverse places as the South of France, Spain, Mexico, and the USA. He was drawn to the cheap glamour of Parisian music halls and nightclubs that appear in his paintings such as ‘Les Follies de Belleville’ and he depicted the seedier side of society, such as sailors and prostitutes in the ports of Southern France, in the iconic painting ‘Market Day’ (1926). His humorous images of cafés and bars capture an exuberant sense of the Jazz Age – for Burra was a huge fan of jazz and swing music. In his paintings he drew inspiration not only from Renaissance paintings, and 18th-century conversation pieces by artists such as William Hogarth, but also Hollywood cinema and French avant-garde literature.
His affectionate depictions of the street life of 1930s Harlem in New York led him to be described as the ‘best painter of the American Scene’ and he later visited Boston where he created memorable images of the city’s nightlife such as ‘Silver Dollar Bar’ (c.1953).