Sunday, 16 October 2016

Swans reflecting elephants in a Surrealist jungle

Edward James, 1930s, by Cecil Beaton

“We still have two lobster telephones, so we have to ask ourselves, we obviously need a lobster telephone, but do we really need two? We also have three Mae West sofas, and that’s just greedy, isn’t it?"

Lisa Fonssagrives on Dali's "Mae West's Lips" sofa, by George Platt-Lines

Thus the director of West Dean College justified the forthcoming sale - which will be conducted by Christie's in December - of parts of their vast collection including the two aforementioned works by Salvador Dali as well as paintings by Pavel Tchelitchew, all bestowed upon the college (along with the vast mansion and grounds in which the college resides) by the eccentric millionaire philanthropist and collector of Surrealist works Edward James.

Edward James with composer Igor Markevich, by Norman Parkinson

Their benefactor Mr James certainly does seem to have been fabulously eccentric... According to The Guardian:
[He] lived mainly in nearby Monkton House, which came to him as a modest, plain home designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens as a refreshing break from the opulence of the main building. James painted the walls a searing purple, added two-storey palm-tree trunks and murals of washing hung out to dry, and heavily padded the interior walls.

He slept in a bed modelled on Nelson’s hearse, and when he married Tilly Losch, an actor and dancer, he commissioned a green carpet woven with her footprints. The marriage did not last, with James accusing his wife of adultery and Losch suspecting her husband was gay. When they separated he had the carpet replaced with one woven with his Irish wolfhound’s paw prints.
As well as Dali and Tchelitchew, Edward James supported numerous renowned artists and writers during their careers, including John Betjeman, Brian Howard, Bertold Brecht, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and George Balanchine. One of his favourites René Magritte made him the subject of not one, but two of his most famous paintings. He went to school with Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton, and counted among his social circle such luminaries as the Mitford sisters, Lord Berners, Sergei Diaghilev, Boris Kochno, Gertrude Stein (till they fell out) and Pablo Picasso. The refurbishment of Monkton House was done by society interior designer Syrie Maugham. His autobiography Swans Reflecting Elephants was written with the assistance of fellow Surrealism fanatic George Melly.

His greatest indulgence, however, was the creation of the magnificent Surrealist gardens of Las Pozas in Mexico.

Tilda Swinton at Las Pozas

From "W" Magazine:
For 20 years, he dedicated much of his time and wealth to the design and construction of a spectacular series of concrete sculptures amid the luscious vegetation of Las Pozas, his vast estate in a tropical rain forest high in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains near the tiny town of Xilitla, about an eight-hour drive north of Mexico City.

Some of the sculptures were inspired by the shapes of exotic plants and trees in the surrounding jungle; others, by the convoluted forms in the immense collection of works by the surrealist artists James had assembled back in England. Among his fantastical structures were totem poles, hidden rooms, teetering towers, and staircases leading to nowhere. James gave them baffling names like The House With Three Storeys That Could Be Five and Temple of the Ducks and instructed the hundreds of artisans who’d worked for him over the years to leave many of them unfinished.

Now the gardens are being restored to their former glory, and the college is intending to use its auction earnings to provide a home for a permanent exhibition of Mr James' bequest (what remains of it, which was quite a lot) - so, thirty-two years after his death, the man's eccentric legacy lives on anew...

Edward William Frank James (16th August 1907 – 2nd December 1984)


  1. Hi Jon.
    The stunning and luscious gardens of Las Pozes can be seen in the video We Are The People by Aussie group Empire of the Sun if anyone's interested.

    1. A great backdrop for a dramatic pop video, indeed! Jx


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