Edward James

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Edward James
Portrait of Edward James.jpg
Not to Be Reproduced, a 1937 portrait of Edward James by René Magritte
Edward Frank Willis James[1]

(1907-08-16)16 August 1907
Died2 December 1984(1984-12-02) (aged 77)
Sanremo, Italy
Resting placeSt. Roche's Arboretum, West Dean, Sussex, England
EducationLockers Park School
Institut Le Rosey
Christ Church, Oxford
Occupation(s)poet, sculptor, patron of the arts
(m. 1930; div. 1934)
Parent(s)William Dodge James
Evelyn Forbes

Edward Frank Willis James (16 August 1907 – 2 December 1984) was a British poet known for his patronage of the surrealist art movement.

Early life and marriage[edit]

James was born on 16 August 1907, the only son of William James (who had inherited a fortune from his father, merchant Daniel James[2]) and Evelyn Forbes, a Scots socialite. He was reputedly fathered by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII)[3]: 14  and in his anecdotal reminiscences, recorded in Swans Reflecting Elephants – My Early Years, Edward James also puts forward this hypothesis.[4] In his memoirs he wrote "I was not, I was, in fact, his grandson" saying that it was his grandmother that had an affair with the Prince of Wales.[5] However, there was also popular belief that Forbes was one of the Prince of Wales's mistresses and there was a much-quoted ballad by Hilaire Belloc intimating this at the time.[6][7][8]

Edward James had four older sisters: Audrey, Millicent, Xandra, and Silvia. He was educated at Lockers Park School,[9] then briefly at Eton, then at Le Rosey in Switzerland, and finally at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh (Waugh attended Hertford College) and Harold Acton, a fellow student at Christ Church. When his father died in 1912 he inherited the 8,000-acre (3,200 ha) 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.[10]

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.[11] James was in fact bisexual.[12] After the divorce, James joined a social set in England which included the Mitford sisters and the composer Lord Berners.


James is best known as a passionate supporter of Surrealism, a movement that evolved from Dada and the political uncertainty and upheaval of World War I and the following years. With a mix of Dada irreverence for the traditional political, religious, and bourgeois values of western civilization that they believed had led the world (and themselves as veterans of the war) to the First World War, the surrealist explored the possibilities that had been opened up by Sigmund Freud regarding the subconscious mind, and the idea of pure thought, unfiltered and uncensored by political, religious, moral, or rational principles.[13][14][15][16]

He sponsored Salvador Dalí for the whole of 1938 and his collection of paintings and art objects subsequently came to be accepted as one of the finest collections of surrealist work in private hands. He also provided practical help, supporting Dalí for about two years. They collaborated on the Mae West Sofas and Lobster Telephones, which James had installed in his private home near West Dean House.

James appeared in two surrealist paintings, both by Magritte:

Salvador Dali put James in touch with the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte (1889–1967).[18] James later hosted Magritte for three weeks at his home on 35 Wimpole Street, London in February and March 1937, where Magritte painted a number of gouaches and oils, some of which were new, others were copies of his earlier work.[18][19] The terms agreed on were that Magritte was to be paid £250 to paint copies or variations of three paintings selected by James from photographs On the Threshold of Liberty (1929), The Red Model (1935), The Youth Illustrated (1936) and pay his own travel expenses, while James was to provide a studio space above his garage as well as art supplies and canvases. James intended to install the paintings behind backless mirrors, so as to only be observable in bright light.[20] The new version of The Red Model painted at James request was a large canvas (72 × 52.5 in.) of higher quality than the original and given a British touch with the addition of a few English coins scattered in the dirt.[18] It is now in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam along with the 1937 version of The Youth Illustrated (79 × 60 in.). Magritte went on to paint at least seven versions of The Red Model.[18] Magritte also enlarged and reformatted the 1937 version of On the Threshold of Liberty (94 × 73 in.), now in the Art Institute of Chicago, from horizontal to vertical to fit the intended installation site for James.[21] In a letter to Louis Scutenaire and Irène Hamoir (February 18, 1937), Magritte wrote "London is a revelation. Of course, I'm only just beginning to discover it. But until now, everything is perfect (of course I don't speak English, but "there's something"). Yesterday evening we went to visit Henry Moore, a charming sculptor, sort of Arp-Picasso..."[19]

In June that year, Magritte painted some portraits of James including Not to be Reproduced and The Pleasure Principle.[22] In the first, James looks into a mirror which shows the back of his head; in the second James's head is an enigmatic radiating light. Magritte painted Pleasure Principle from photographs of James taken by Man Ray, following Magritte's precise staging instructions.[20] The Pleasure Principle was based on a small ink sketch from the year before, titled Failed Portrait [of Paul Éluard].[20] In Not to be Reproduced, the book sitting on the mantle is the French edition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.[18][20] 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.[3]: 167  Most were sold at a well-publicized sale at Christie's 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, in a part of the West Dean Estate, was a Surrealist dream.[23] 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 actress's 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.[24] James's most fantastic surrealist creation was realised in the Mexican rain forest, a surrealist sculpture garden, "Las Pozas".

New Mexico[edit]

In 1940, James stayed 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 Britain and reside at West Dean, but she declined.[25]

Las Pozas[edit]

The surrealist sculpture park Las Pozas, Xilitla

Las Pozas ("the Pools"), near the village of Xilitla, San Luis Potosí, more than 2,000 feet (610 m) above sea level, in a subtropical rainforest in the Sierra Gorda mountains of Mexico, is a garden created by James. It includes more than 80 acres (32 ha) of natural waterfalls and pools interlaced with towering Surrealist sculptures in concrete.[26] 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.[27] Construction of Las Pozas cost more than $5 million. To pay for it, James sold his collection of Surrealist art at auction.[28]

West Dean[edit]

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 and an art gallery are 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.
  • E. James, "The Sight of Marble, and Other Poems", Julian Messner (New York), 1941
  • Edward James wrote a collection of four poems, Sécheresses, and Francis Poulenc set them to music for choir (mixed voices SATB) and piano or orchestra in 1937.[29]
  • — (1982). Melly, George (ed.). Swans Reflecting Elephants, My Early Years. London: Weidenfeld.

Portrait sculpture[edit]

An early marble portrait sculpture of Edward James exists, by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi.[30]


  1. ^ West Sussex Record Office; Brighton, England; Sussex Parish Registers; Reference: Par 65/1/2/3
  2. ^ Dodge, Phyllis B. (1987). Tales of the Phelps-Dodge Family: A Chronicle of Five Generations. New-York Historical Society. p. 108.
  3. ^ a b Hooks, Margaret (2007). Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas. Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 978-1-56898-612-8.
  4. ^ Melly, George (1982). Swans Reflecting Elephants: My Early Years. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-297-77988-9.
  5. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey (2013). The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends. Faber & Faber. p. 22. ISBN 9780571309283.
  6. ^ Magnus, Philip (1964). Edward VII. John Murray. p. 268.
  7. ^ Leslie, Anita (1973). The Marlborough House Set. New York: Doubleday & Company. p. 125.
  8. ^ Harris, Russell (2011). "Mrs William (Willie) Dodge James". Narrated in Calm Prose:Photographs from the V&A's Lafayette Archive of Guests in Costume at the Duchess of Devonshire's Diamond Jubilee Ball, July 1897. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
  9. ^ Bloch, Michael (2009). James Lees-Milne: The Life. John Murray. p. 17. ISBN 9780719560347.
  10. ^ "Coventry & District". The Midland Daily Telegraph. 25 May 1917. p. 2.
  11. ^ Coleby, Nicola (1998). A surreal life: Edward James, 1907-1984. Philip Wilson Publishers. ISBN 978-0-85667-493-8 – via Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums.
  12. ^ Gray, Francine du Plessix (24 September 2007). "The Surrealists' Muse". The New Yorker. p. 136.
  13. ^ Breton, André (1924) Manifeste du Surréalisme. Poisson Soluble. Simon Kra, Paris.
  14. ^ Breton, André (1930) Second Manifeste du Surréalisme. Simon Kra, Paris.
  15. ^ Rubin, William S. (1968) Dada and Surrealist Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York. 525 pp.
  16. ^ Picon, Gaëtan (1977) Surrealist and Surrealism 1919-1939. Skira/Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. New York, 231. ISBN 0-8478-0041-5
  17. ^ The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James), by René Magritte. 1937. Oil on canvas. 79 × 63.5 cm. Edward James Foundation, Chichester, UK.
  18. ^ a b c d e Hammacher, A. M. (1973) Magritte. The Library of Great Painters. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 167 pp. ISBN 0-8109-0278-8
  19. ^ a b Torczyner, Harry (1977) Magritte: Ideas and Images. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 277 pp. [page 44] ISBN 0-8109-1300-3
  20. ^ a b c d Roegiers, Patrick (2005) Magritte and Photography. Ludion and D.A. P./Distributed Art Publishers. New York, 167 pp. ISBN 90-5544-562-2 [note Roegiers cites René Magritte: Catalogue raisonné, Vol I–V as the source of much of his information]
  21. ^ Art Institute of Chicago, Collection, On the Threshold of Liberty
  22. ^ The Pleasure Principle
  23. ^ "Monkton House". Country Life Picture Library. Retrieved 20 March 2013.
  24. ^ Rose Collis The New Encyclopaedia of Brighton, Brighton: Brighton & Hove Libraries, 2010, p. 207
  25. ^ Hignett, Sean (1985). Brett: From Bloomsbury to New Mexico : a Biography. F. Watts. ISBN 978-0-531-09775-5.
  26. ^ "Dream Works: Can a Legendary Surrealist Garden in Mexico Bloom Again?". New York Times Style Magazine. 30 March 2008.
  27. ^ "Los Pozas – steps and falls". 2007. Archived from the original on 16 April 2008. Retrieved 30 March 2008.
  28. ^ Alhadeff, Gini (11 May 2009). "Concrete Jungle in Xilitla". Travel + Leisure. Retrieved 26 August 2018.
  29. ^ Lewis, Dave. "Sécheresses, cantata for chorus & orchestra, FP 90". allmusic.com. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
  30. ^ "The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné: Artwork: Edward James: [172]". Retrieved 16 May 2020.

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