Marriage à la Mode by Edward Burra

With characteristic verve and impish intent, Burra borrowed his title Marriage à la Mode from William Hogarth’s moralising series of six paintings in the National Gallery, London. Hogarth's works recount the tale of Viscount Squanderfield who is married off to the daughter of a wealthy merchant only to come to a sticky end when he is murdered by her lover and she commits suicide when her lover is executed. Burra’s version is certainly more mode than moral: Burra's bride flaunts her cleavage seductively, gazing unflinchingly at the priest who in turn, stares unashamedly at the dapper groom, their eyes locked in a longing gaze. Marriage à la Mode or ménage à trois, Burra delights in every detail of the risqué narrative. As his best friend Billy Chappell recalled, in the 1920s 'sexual ambiguity was the rule, Sexual promiscuity and sexual aberration the mode...’ (William Chappell, (ed.), Well Dearie!, The Letters of Edward Burra, Gordon Fraser, London, 1985, p.27).

The antithesis of marriage in the traditional sense, the painting is undoubtedly a celebration of Burra’s world and the era of the Bright Young Things. It is highly significant that the painting was acquired from his very first one-man exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1929 by his friend Olivia Wyndham, socialite and professional party-girl who famously arrived at Norman Hartnell’s 1928 circus party as a snake charmer with real snakes entwined around her body. Burra and Billy Chappell met her through Frederick Ashton and her parties were infamous: ‘Well old sport Miss Wyndham gave a cocktail party last Friday and everybody was there the Kings Road & Sloane sq were lined with plainclothes detectives to guard Lady Dean Pauls priceless diamond ankle watch & the princess Haines pearls were the sinecure of all eyes till the eyes saw double which was very soon. from what I hear in my radio grammes they all went down like ninepins (and it was suspected that aphrodisiac had been added to the cocktails)...’ (letter to Billy Chappell, 5th March 1929, quoted in Well Dearie, ibid., p.55). Even Evelyn Waugh noted one of her soirées in his diary (which he doesn’t appear to have enjoyed): ‘It was not enough of an orgy. Masses of little lesbian tarts and toyboys. Only one fight...poor Hat [Brian Howard] looking like a tragedy queen...’ (quoted in Jane Stevenson, op.cit., p.84). (http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/modern-post-war-british-art-l14141/lot.9.html)
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