Keeping it surreal

27th February 2019

The extraordinary life of Edward James, polymath laird of West Dean House and artistic champion, is soon to be celebrated in a new library and archive.

Words by Oliver Bennett

  • Goodwood Magazine


In November of this year, a portrait by René Magritte set the Sotheby’s New York saleroom abuzz. Titled The Pleasure Principle and depicting a man with a suit, tie and head alight like a fiery sun, it sold for £20.6 million – £5m more than expected and a record amount for works by Magritte. The 1937 painting is a portrait of Edward James, the Belgian surrealist’s great patron and onetime laird of West Dean House, now part of the College of Arts and Conservation, just over five miles from the Goodwood Estate in the South Downs.

That Magritte painted James’s head as a ball of light speaks volumes about this eccentric polymath. Poet, socialite, surrealist, philanthropist and patron, James dabbled and dashed his way through one of the most remarkable lives of the 20th century, sparking ideas and inspiring art wherever he went. “In the last couple of years there’s been a real surge of interest in James,” says Alex Barron, chief executive of West Dean. “It seems the world has finally caught up with him.” As part of this recognition, the college recently unveiled a ten-year plan that includes a new library and archive space about James’s extraordinary life, due to open in 2021.

Spread culture through the teaching of crafts and the preservation of knowledge that might otherwise be destroyed or forgotten

On the approach to West Dean House, nothing immediately tells you that this Gothic-flavoured Edwardian mansion was a crucible of surrealism. Castellated and flint-faced, the house is certainly grand, and within, there’s a bustling, creative atmosphere, as you’d expect from a place that runs around 700 art and conservation courses a year. But the spirit of James
persists: in the arboretum he loved, in artefacts in the house and, most importantly, in the college’s creative atmosphere, due to the Edward James Foundation’s efforts to “spread culture through the teaching of crafts and the preservation of knowledge that might otherwise be destroyed or forgotten”, as James himself put it.


Born in 1907 in Scotland, one of five children of American heir William Dodge James and Scottish socialite Evelyn Elizabeth Forbes, Edward James seemed, as the author Desmond Guinness once observed, “cut out for a conventional rich upper-class life”. His high-living parents certainly made invitations to West Dean House covetable, throwing glamorous parties that included orchestras and hedonistic forays to nearby beaches. But the single-most celebrated guest was King Edward VII, who frequently stayed at West Dean House, as well as Goodwood House, on his Sussex sojourns.

To this day, a rumour persists that the King was James’s real father. “There are two rumours actually,” corrects Barron. “One that he was his father, the second that he was his grandfather; that is, Evelyn’s father.” But he may have been neither, as, unlike his protégé Salvador Dalí, James hasn’t been exhumed for DNA analysis. “For now it remains a wonderful yarn”, says Barron, “and we do know that the King was definitely Edward’s godfather.” When Edward was five, his father died and, as the only son, he began a gilded life that included, at 25, inheriting the West Dean Estate.

He followed the timeworn aristocratic path through Eton and Oxford, where he mingled with aesthetes and the crowd that would become the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, living in flamboyant lodgings with Gothic tapestries and a purple ceiling painted with Latin quotations in gold. He drew envy and notoriety by driving a Rolls-Royce around Oxford, while at West Dean he hosted fashionable high society, including Fred Astaire, the Mitford sisters and Cecil Beaton. But James was no mere moneyed braggart. Showing early prowess as a cultural impresario, he published John Betjeman’s first poems.


After Oxford, James had a brief and undistinguished career as a trainee diplomat in Rome. He sent a code to London that meant “300” destroyers instead of “three”, lost his post, and reverted to his vocation as poet, before losing heart in that after a negative review by Stephen Spender of his collection, The Bones of My Hands.

Never one to be set back for long, by the early 1920s, James saw that the cultural action was with the surrealist movement, and he became a keen supporter: patronising Salvador Dalí and Magritte and sponsoring the surrealist magazine Minotaure. After he bankrolled Dalí for the whole year of 1938, the Catalan painter gave this somewhat backhanded compliment: “Edward is as insanely relentless as myself.” Meanwhile, James’s bisexual personal life was just as colourful, personifying the 20th-century splicing of sexual and artistic experimentation. In 1930, he married Austrian dancer Tilly Losch, a marriage that soon fell apart in a welter of affairs and accusations.

More importantly, perhaps, he refurbished Monkton House on the West Dean Estate, a retreat designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for James’s parents William and Evelyn to provide refuge from older West Dean House which, like Goodwood, had parts designed by Regency architect James Wyatt. 

The interior of Monkton House

The interior of Monkton House

Determined that Monkton should become a showcase for surrealism, James secured the celebrated British decorator Syrie Maugham and put in daring domestic touches such Dalí’s Mae West sofa, in the shape of her lips, and his Lobster Telephone – both of which James co-created with Dalí (to Barron’s delight, James now routinely receives co-credit for them). Lovingly and sympathetically restored, Monkton is now privately owned, so we will just have to imagine it in its surrealist heyday, painted purple and green, packed with art and floored with a carpet woven with images of Tilly Losch’s  footprints. Some of the crazier ideas for Monkton, such as Dalí’s suggestion of having animatronic walls that “breathed” in and out, were too much, even for James. To all appearances, James had a perfect life: dabbling in art, awash with money and in tune with the cultural currents of his day. But by 1939, with war looming, he felt anxious and apocalyptic.

He wrote to his friend Aldous Huxley that he wanted to start a foundation that would bring forward his idea of a creative community, somewhere art could be harnessed as a civilising force. Following this cri de coeur, when World War II broke out, James went to Los Angeles, with the grandiose, utopian idea of setting up a “Garden of Eden”. But overcrowded California was not to be the beneficiary and James went to Mexico instead, seeking to create an orchid museum. With a local man called Plutarco Gastélum as his factotum he purchased a huge 80-acre site in the Mexican jungle to house his 29,000-strong orchid collection. In 1962 the poor blooms died in fierce weather: a scenario that proved the mother of invention for the resilient James. Using wooden moulds, poured concrete and a master joiner, he made Las Pozas (The Pools), an extraordinary surrealist-inspired magical environment: a magnificent array of about 40 follies, each with a whimsically poetic name, such as “The House With the Temple of the Ducks” and “The House With a Roof Like a Whale”. It cost nearly £4m, which James paid for by selling some of his surrealist artworks.

There’s no doubt that he dabbled with many creative ideas and was the classic Bohemian.


In Mexico, James seems to have found himself. “Uncle Edward” became a renowned figure locally: travelling around with his 40 dogs, pet boa constrictor and parrots on his arms. With a flowing white beard, he had become the archetypal English eccentric, full of flamboyant idiosyncrasies, such as a need to carry trunk-loads of his favourite Kleenex tissues wherever he went. Returning to the UK in 1964, James gave his English estate to a charitable trust, and by 1971, the foundation he had once talked about with Huxley was finally established. James died in 1984 and the remains of his astonishing art collection, which included works by Hieronymus Bosch, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst, were sold by Christie’s. By then, his reputation was already undergoing a certain amount of revision, with Orlando Rock, Christie’s UK chairman, describing him as being “touched by genius”. 

I personally think we can credit James with the achievement of bringing surrealism into three dimensions.

James is buried in the St Roche’s Arboretum at West Dean and the legend on his gravestone simply reads “Poet”. Growing numbers of fans visit his grave each year, says Barron, and seek out Edward James’s echoes in the corridors of West Dean, including his Mae West sofa, Lobster Telephone, and interpretation boards explaining the extraordinary life of this artistic impresario. So, what of James’s reputation? It’s a question that West Dean is addressing in its upcoming visitor attraction. 

“There’s no doubt that he dabbled with many creative ideas and was the classic Bohemian,” says Alex Barron. “But Edward James was also very proud of his work, and as well as being a great organiser and finder of talent, we think he was something more: a great artist, perhaps. He was not just an eccentric.” Indeed, James would enjoy the fact that after years as a little-known secret, quietly crumbling in the jungle, Las Lozas is now firmly on the tourist trail. “It’s being reappraised as the largest surrealist sculpture in the world,” says Barron. “I personally think we can credit James with the achievement of bringing surrealism into three dimensions.”

But perhaps James’s greatest monument is the thriving West Dean College itself. “He always had a new take on old skills,” says Barron. “For example, I’m sure he would like it that at West Dean we have the only remaining tapestry company in England.” It’s the fruit of his whimsical wartime dream of promoting arts and crafts skills for the benefit of the world – and to preserve knowledge that might otherwise be destroyed or forgotten.

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Winter 2018 issue

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