Edward Burra in Chichester

I really am still in two minds about Edward Burra. There's a Burra in Bury art gallery called 'News of the World', I have fond memories of seeing it as I was growing up, but I always assumed he was American, what with the unusual name and his best known pictures being of jazz-age Harlem. What I also didn't realise was that he worked almost excusively in watercolour.

So I set off to Pallant House in Chichester on half-price tuesday to see more. As ever they put on a fine exhibition, and I loved the first room of art deco sailors and showgirls from French ports, and in the corridor before you even get in is a fabulous and rare oil painting, and all in that flattened perspective with vibrant Léger-style shading of arms and legs. How did he achieve that depth of colour with watercolour? I squinted close up and all I could deduce was that he was using very dry paint, perhaps pounced like Maxfield Parrish. When I got home I googled about his technique - more later!

Anyway, after that first room with its smallish pictures, plus his photo album of tiny contact prints, we get to the Spanish war and some huge paintings that I thought were horrible. And I was pretty much disappointed from then in - everything he did I could think of someone who'd done it better. The early inter-war stuff you could compare with George Grosz and William Roberts (also featured in a Pallant House exhibition, 2007). The spanish paintings remind you of Dali, and put Burra in that sad category of English Surrealist. His Sussex paintings are not even in the same league as Ravilious. I find his pictures on the cusp of ugliness, with those big lumbering forms looming up in the foreground and the hideous lips on everyone. But I still can't help being fascinated.

The technique to achieve this intense tempera-type finish, I found out from a Guardian review, was as follows:

He came to prefer watercolour to oil, partly because it was physically easier to handle for a man who, perforce, painted sitting down [he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other ailments]. Though he seems to have had a good idea of where he was going from the start, he did not make preliminary sketches. He started at the bottom right-hand corner, and in his 20s and 30s, drew a compartment, or section, in light pencil (he later dispensed with this). Then, using a rather small brush laden with paint lightly moistened with spit, he completed the entire section before moving on to the next, achieving a suave, velvety surface of intensely saturated colour.

Do go and see it, though. It's on until 19 February.

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