Edward James

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This article is about the poet and patron of the arts. For other persons of the same name, see Edward James (disambiguation).

Edward William Frank James (1907–1984) was a British poet known for his patronage of the surrealist art movement.

Early life and marriage[edit]

West Dean House

Edward James was born on 16 August 1907, the only son of William James who, at twenty five years of age (1879), had inherited a fortune from his father, Liverpool-based American merchant Daniel James (Daniel James's will, CODICIL 13th day of April 1876)[1] and had married Evelyn Forbes, a Scots socialite, who was reputedly fathered by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).[2] In his anecdotal reminiscences recorded in "Swans Reflecting Elephants – My Early Years", Edward James also puts forward this hypothesis.[3] However, there was also popular belief that Evelyn may have been one of the Prince of Wales's mistresses and there was a "much quoted" ballad by Hilaire Belloc at the time that intimated this.[4][5][6]

Edward James had four older sisters: Audrey, Millicent, Xandra, and Silvia. He was educated at Lockers Park School,[7] then briefly at Eton, then at Le Rosey in Switzerland, and finally at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. When his father died in 1912 he inherited the 8,000-acre (32 km2) West Dean House estate in Sussex, held in trust until he came of age. He was also left a large sum in trust when his uncle John Arthur James died in 1917.[8]

St Andrew's West Dean, West Sussex, UK

James's first sponsorship of note was in publishing John Betjeman's first book of poems when at Oxford. He worked with Brian Howard on the Glass Omnibus. After Oxford, James had a brief career as a trainee diplomat at the embassy in Rome. He was asked to send a coded message to London that the Italians had laid the keels for three destroyers, but got the code wrong; the message said "300 destroyers". Shortly after this he was sent "on indefinite leave".

In the early 1930s, James married Tilly Losch, an Austrian dancer, choreographer, actress and painter. He had several productions created expressly for her, the most notable of which was Les Ballets 1933, which included Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and George Balanchine. He and Boris Kochno commissioned that year Brecht and Weill's last collaboration, The Seven Deadly Sins, which Balanchine produced, directed and choreographed.

James divorced Losch in 1934, accusing her of adultery with Prince Serge Obolensky, an American hotel executive; her countersuit, in which she made it clear that James was homosexual, failed.[9] James was in fact bisexual.[10] After the divorce, James joined a social set in England which included the Mitford sisters and the composer Lord Berners.


Not to be Reproduced, a portrait of Edward James by René Magritte

James is best known as a passionate and early supporter of Surrealism, a movement that was born from the political uncertainty and upheaval between the wars. Rejecting the bourgeois' dominating rationality, surrealists escaped into a world of fantasy and irrationality. He sponsored Salvador Dalí for the whole of 1938 and his collection of paintings and art objects that subsequently came to be accepted as the finest collection of surrealist work in private hands. He also provided practical help, supporting Dalí for about two years, and allowed René Magritte to stay in his London house to paint.

James appeared in two famous surrealist paintings, both by Magritte:

Each suggests an alienated person. In the first, James looks into a mirror which shows the back of his head; in the second James's head is a fireball.

As well as Dalí and Magritte, his art collection included works by Hieronymus Bosch, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Leonora Carrington, Pavel Tchelitchew, Pablo Picasso, Giacometti, Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux, amongst others.[13] Most were sold at a well-publicized sale at Christies two years after his death.

His intellectual interest in surrealism is demonstrated by his sponsorship of Minotaure, a lavish Surrealist magazine published in Paris. His refurbishment of Monkton House,[14] in a part of the West Dean Estate, was a Surrealist dream. It was done in collaboration with the pioneering British decorator, Syrie Maugham, and has some of the most iconic Surrealist works on display, including the large Mae West Lips Sofa to which Dalí gave the form and colour of the actresses lips, and his Lobster Telephone in white. (The surrealist tradition at Monkton House was maintained when the Interior designer, Derek Frost, did extensive work to the house and designed more custom pieces of furniture in the late 1980s.) James donated these two items (among others) to the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.[15] James most fantastic surrealist creation was realised in the Mexican rain forest, a surrealist Sculpture garden, "Las Pozas" (see below).

New Mexico[edit]

In 1940, James showed up in Taos, New Mexico, United States, as a guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan, where he was known for his amusing, clever eccentricity and effeminate manner. In Taos, he met the Hon. Dorothy Brett, an impoverished British aristocrat and painter, who in 1941 sold him nine paintings for $580. He later invited the 70-year-old Brett (as she was known) to return to England and reside at West Dean, but she declined.[16]

Las Pozas[edit]

The surrealist sculpture park Las Pozas, Xilitla
Las Pozas, Xilitla

Las Pozas ("the Pools") was created by James, more than 2,000 feet (610 m) above sea level, in a subtropical rainforest in the mountains of Mexico. It includes more than 80 acres (32 ha) of natural waterfalls and pools interlaced with towering Surrealist sculptures in concrete.[17]

Las Pozas is near the village of Xilitla, San Luis Potosí, a seven-hour drive north of Mexico City. In the early 1940s, James went to Los Angeles, California, and then decided that he "wanted a Garden of Eden set up . . . and I saw that Mexico was far more romantic" and had "far more room than there is in crowded Southern California".[18] In Hollywood in 1941, his lifetime friend and cousin, Magic Realist painter Bridget Bate Tichenor, encouraged him to search for a surreal location in Mexico to express his diverse esoteric interests.[19] In Cuernavaca, he hired Plutarco Gastelum as a guide. They discovered Xilitla in November 1945.[17] Eventually Plutarco married a local woman and had four children. James was "Uncle Edward" to the children and frequently stayed with them in a house Plutarco had built, a mock-Gothic cement castle, now a hotel – La Posada El Castillo.[20]

Between 1949 and 1984, James built scores of surreal concrete structures with names like the House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof like a Whale, and the Staircase to Heaven.[20] There were also plantings and beds full of tropical plants, including orchids – there were, apparently, 29,000 at Las Pozas at one time[21]- and a variety of small casas (homes), niches, and pens that held exotic birds and wild animals from the world over—James owned many exotic animals and once took his pet boa constrictors to the Hotel Francis in Mexico City.[20]

Massive sculptures up to four stories tall punctuate the site. The many trails throughout the garden site are composed of steps, ramps, bridges and narrow, winding walkways that traverse the valley walls.[22] Construction of Las Pozas cost more than $5 million. To pay for it, James sold his collection of Surrealist art at auction.[20]

In the summer of 2007, the Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández, the company Cemex, and the government of San Luis Potosí paid about $2.2 million for Las Pozas and created Fondo Xilitla, a foundation that will oversee the preservation and restoration of the site.[17]

West Dean[edit]

The St Roche's Arboretum at West Dean

In 1964, James gave his English estate which included West Dean House at West Dean to a charitable trust. The Edward James Foundation comprises West Dean College, a centre for the preservation of traditional arts and crafts, through short courses and full-time Diplomas and MAs. One of only two professional Tapestry Weaving studios in the UK, an Art Gallery are all housed on a 6,400-acre (26 km2) estate which is open to the public through the West Dean Gardens.

West Dean College is part of the Edward James Foundation set up in 1971 in response to James' vision of establishing "an educational foundation where creative talents can be discovered and developed, and where one can spread culture through the teaching of crafts and the preservation of knowledge that might otherwise be destroyed or forgotten".

Edward James is buried in the St Roche's Arboretum at West Dean, with the simple inscription Edward James 1907 – 1984 Poet. The stone was carved by John Skelton.


I have seen such beauty as one man has seldom seen;
therefore will I be grateful to die in this little room,
surrounded by the forests, the great green gloom
of trees my only gloom – and the sound, the sound of green.
Here amid the warmth of the rain, what might have been
is resolved into the tenderness of a tall doom
who says: 'You did your best, rest' – and after you the bloom
of what you loved and planted still will whisper what you mean.
And the ghosts of the birds I loved, will attend me each a friend;
like them shall I have flown beyond the realm of words.
You, through the trees, shall hear them, long after the end
calling me beyond the river. For the cries of birds
continue, as – defended by the cortege of their wings –
my soul among strange silences yet sings.

—Edward James, Poet 1907 – 1984[citation needed]

  • E. James, "The Bones of my Hand", privately printed, London 1930.
  • E. James, The Glass Omnibus, privately printed, London 1934.
  • E. James, The Gardener Who Saw God, 1937
  • Edward James wrote four poems "Sécheresses" and Francis Poulenc put them in music for choir 4 mixt voices and piano ro orchestra in 1937
  • George Melly (ed), Swans Reflecting Elephants, My Early Years, Autobiography of Edward James (Weidenfeld, London 1982).

Portrait sculpture[edit]

An early marble portrait sculpture of Edward James exists, by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi.


  1. ^ Dodge, Phyllis (1987). Tales of the Phelps Dodge Family. New York: New York Historical Society. p. 108. 
  2. ^ Margaret Hooks, "Surreal Eden: Edward James & Las Pozas", Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2006, ISBN 978-1-56898-612-8, p.14
  3. ^ Melly, George (1982). Swans Reflecting Elephants. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. p. 6. 
  4. ^ Magnus, Philip (1964). Edward VII. John Murray Publishers Ltd. p. 268. 
  5. ^ Leslie, Anita (1973). The Marlborough House Set. New York: Doubleday & Company. p. 125. 
  6. ^ "Mrs William (Willie) Dodge James". All text copyright Russell Harris 2011. Retrieved 21 March 2013. 
  7. ^ Michael Bloch, James Lees-Milne: The Life (John Murray, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7195-6034-7), p. 17
  8. ^ "Coventry & District". The Midland Daily Telegraph – page 2. 25 May 1917. 
  9. ^ Coleby, Nicola, "A Surreal Life: Edward James, 1907–1984", Exhibition Catalogue, Royal Pavilion (Brighton, 1998).
  10. ^ Francine du Plessix Gray, Onward and Upward with the Arts, “The Surrealists’ Muse”, The New Yorker, 24 September 2007, p. 136
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James), by René Magritte. 1937. Oil on canvas. 79 x 63.5 cm. Edward James Foundation, Chichester, UK.
  13. ^ Margaret Hooks, "Surreal Eden: Edward James & Las Pozas", Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2006, ISBN 978-1-56898-612-8, p.167
  14. ^ "Monkton House". Country Life Picture Library. Retrieved 20 March 2013. 
  15. ^ Rose Collis The New Encyclopaedia of Brighton, Brighton: Brighton & Hove Libraries, 2010, p.207
  16. ^ Sean Hignett and Franklin Watts,Brett: From Bloomsbury to New Mexico, New York, 1983, ISBN 978-0-531-09775-5
  17. ^ a b c "Dream Works: Can a Legendary Surrealist Garden in Mexico Bloom Again?", New York Times Style Magazine, 30 March 2008
  18. ^ Margaret Hooks, "Surreal Eden: Edward James & Las Pozas", Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2006, ISBN 978-1-56898-612-8
  19. ^ Bridget Bate Tichenor Biography http://BridgetBateTichenor.com/
  20. ^ a b c d Gini Alhadeff, "Concrete Jungle", Travel + Leisure", September 2003
  21. ^ Joanna Moorhead, "The Magic Kingdom (James' Las Pozas, Mexico)", The Guardian, 6 November 2007
  22. ^ "Los Pozas – steps and falls", virtual tour of the grounds of Las Pozas, DVD, published 2007; retrieved 30 March 2008

External links[edit]