Zoot Suits1948 by Edward Burra

For Simon Martin, Burra is ‘one of the most elusive British artists of the twentieth century’ – long overlooked and underrated. But recently his reputation has grown dramatically: a record price for one of his works was paid at auction when Zoot Suits sold for £1.8m. That painting, made in 1948, records a London street scene after the arrival of the first Jamaican immigrants to Britain on the SS Windrush. (https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/edward-burra-hastings-to-harlem-and-back/)


At the Sotheby's Evill/Frost sale in June 2011, Burra’s Zoot Suits sold for £2,057,250, breaking a record set for the artist earlier in the evening when The Common Stair, from 1929, sold for £881,250. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Burra)



A riotous celebration of urban energy and style, Zoot Suits focuses on a group of swaggering young men flaunting the distinctive high-waisted, pegged trousers and wide lapelled coats that were first worn during Harlem's jazz scene in the 1930s. The zoot suit quickly became the bold uniform of choice particularly amongst Afro American, Mexican American, Caribbean and West Indian men eager to portray themselves at the cutting edge of music and fashion. With an unerring eye for style and detail, Burra would have been thrilled to chance upon a group of such sharply attired men in his favourite part of London, the insalubriously animated streets of Soho.

The London setting is highly significant as it was in the same year as the present work, 1948, that the SS. Empire Windrush docked in Britain from Jamaica, bringing a post-war generation of men and women from the Caribbean to the U.K. and heralding a new era in British cultural history. In celebrating the recent arrivals, Zoot Suits undoubtedly recalls Burra's excitement on first visiting New York in 1933 when he was particularly drawn to the energy of the Harlem Renaissance and subsequently produced some of his most memorable work such as Harlem (1934, watercolour, Tate Collection, London, fig.2). He wrote excitedly to Barbara Ker-Seymer, 'New York would drive you into a fit...[it] is like a Berwick Street thats burst all bounds everything here is more so...' (Burra to B.Ker-Seymer, October 1933, in William Chappell, ed., Well dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra, Gordon Fraser, London, 1985, pp. 83 and 94); in Zoot Suits, it was Berwick Street itself and its environs that had 'burst all bounds' and he was finally able to locate exemplars of the New World jazz culture which he so adored within the Old World of his own capital city.

Rife with style, Zoot Suits is also a testament to Burra's shrewd observational skills and his acute visual memory. Whilst the so-called zooters undoubtedly take centre stage, the characters in the background are no less rich demonstrating the artist's dynamic combination of actual and imagined realities so that skeletons stand cheek by jowl with friends, lovers, gangsters, prostitutes, old and young, each oblivious to the other as they scurry about on their everyday business. (http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2011/the-evillfrost-collection-part-i-l11144/lot.21.html)
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