I wish I was posting today to recommend you visit this surrealist fantasy mansion – with connections to Salvador Dali – on your next secret Sussex staycation. But it’s privately owned so not open to the public. This doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is that it wasn’t considered interesting enough to win funding to protect it (more on that later, stay tuned); and that not much has been written about it since the mid 1980s.
Today, although I can’t buy it and turn it into a Surrealist house museum – how great would that be!? – I can write about it to keep its legacy alive. So using the pictures and video footage of it I found, I’m taking you on an unusual historical Sussex house tour. Let’s have a snoop around!
Monkton House on the West Dean Estate in Chilgrove, West Sussex, belonged to Edward James, the eccentric and extremely wealthy Sussex gentleman who made Salvador Dali famous.
Despite living such an incredible life, James was an underrated, little-known art world contributor, collector and patron of surrealism and believed passionately in outsider art. He transformed Monkton House in the 1930s to reflect his empathy with the visionary world of the surrealists.
Along with creative input from his friend, Salvador Dali, James transformed the six-bedroom, five-bathroom lodge designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1902-3 for his hugely wealthy parents, Mr and Mrs Willie James as a retreat from their Edwardian mansion, West Dean, on their 6,000-acre estate just north of Chichester. Edward James wasn’t a fan of Lutyens’ style.
“I wanted to get away from that cottagey look that Lutyens went in for,” James says in this video. With creative input from his friend, Salvador Dali, he had the house painted purple and the front door pink, redesigned the pillars outside to look like fibre glass palm trees, the drainpipes to resemble sticks of bamboo, the window sills with drapes made out of plaster, the three exterior chimneys stacks were each of irregular shapes.
Inside, it’s just as unique as the outside, the place filled with surrealist art and artifacts and redecorated in a mixture of styles that both reflected and defied the taste of the period.
“I decided to make this house comfortable so I’d have somewhere large enough for me and not as big as West Dean. But we had to make it warm and add padding. I know it looks like a padded cell, but it’s padded and buttoned to keep it cosy and warm.”
Among other things – including a bathroom of alabaster complete with two sun and moon nightlights – James also installed a new staircase with an elegant curve and had it covered with carpet originally woven with footprint of his former wife Tilly Losch, which he later replaced with one woven with the footprint pattern of his Irish wolfhound when the couple split.
By the 1960s, James had become disillusioned with stuffy British life and moved to Mexico. On the advice of his American tax lawyer, he started getting rid of his assets in England. He turned over the West Dean property to the Edward James Foundation. He set this up to preserve and teach craft skills he was concerned would be lost after the second world war, and transformed West Dean House, into West Dean College.
Later on in 1981 he auctioned the greatest of his Dalis through Christie’s. In the mid 1980s, his foundation had put Monkton House and its contents up for sale, but English Heritage lost its seven-month campaign to save Monkton. Apparently the National Heritage Memorial Fund deemed it ‘not of sufficient interest’ to warrant funding, according to this article. In the end, it was bought by a private buyer without its contents which were auctioned off.
“It was the best interior of its period in this country to have survived,” architectural historian Clive Asle says here. ”So many people did imaginative things in the 1930s, but there is nothing left in England to compare to Monkton.” Now, there isn’t even Monkton.