Edward Burra lived for most of his life in his parents’ house near Rye in Sussex. He trained at the Chelsea Polytechnic (1921-23) and at the Royal College of Art (1923-25). He suffered from ill-health, in the form of rheumatoid arthritis contracted during childhood, and as a result worked mainly in watercolour, oil paint being too unwieldy for him to use with dexterity. Later in his career his watercolours were often very large, as he pieced together several sheets of paper.
Burra travelled as widely as his health would allow, and drew his subject-matter from the low-life bars, dance-halls and nightclubs of Marseilles, Paris and New York. In 1930 he had a one-man show at the Leicester Galleries, and participated in group shows at the Mayor Gallery in the early 1930s, and in the International Surrealist exhibition of 1936. He was also a successful costume and set designer for ballets. He was deeply affected by the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, and the themes of his later paintings become darker and more disturbing. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Hayward Gallery in 1985.