A rare archival image of the courtyard at Monkton House, West Dean © Historic England

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. However, it’s privately owned so not open to the public. This is fair enough and 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 fantasy house museum – how great would that be!? – what I can do is 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 edward james surrealism
The front of Monkton House © Elizabeth Whiting & Associates/Alamy

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 his 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.

Trompe-l’oeil painted curtain © Elizabeth Whiting & Associates/Alamy

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.

monkton house sussex lutyens architect

“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 fibreglass 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.

A surrealist sculpture in a doorway at Monkton House © Elizabeth Whiting & Associates/Alamy

Inside, it’s just as unique as it appears on the outside, the place filled with surrealist art and artefacts and redecorated in a mixture of styles that both reflected and defied the taste of the period.

The staircase, Monkton House © Historic England

“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.”

The dining room at Monkton House with padded walls and sofas designed by Dali in the shape of Mae West’s lips © Historic England

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 the footprint of his former wife, Tilly Losch. When the couple split, James later replaced the carpet with one woven with the footprint pattern of his Irish wolfhound.

The stairs carpet at Monkton House, woven with footprints of Tilly Losch, the wife of Monkton owner, Edward James © Historic England

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.

inside monkton house edward james surreal house
© Historic England

“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.

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  1. In 2016/2017 there was a great exhibition in Kunsthalle Hamburg about Edward James (and others): Dalí, Ernst, Miró, Magritte… including famous movies from that time. Since that I feel a need to visit that House.

  2. Dr. David Glynne-Percy Reply

    Thank you, Ellie. I remember walking past the grounds of Monkton House as an impressionable eleven year old and peering through the high fence from the South Downs Way and being bewitched by what lay beyond.
    Yesterday I returned and found myself still enchanted and looking through the high fence. I suddenly realised Monkton House is where I live in a parallel universe. I am very happy there playing tennis and writing. Do you care for tea on the lawn?

      • Mario Cesar Ramirez Reply

        We are opening Edward James Museum in Xilitla Mexico with many replicas of Monkton House. We want the world to see it

        • Ellie Reply

          Will you put me on your list for updates? I’d love to share this news.

  3. Stuart Kelly Reply

    Just cycled past today and was as enchanting as last summer but for being more exposed. A beautiful lounge chair overlooking the tennis courts set the scene to the sound of the peacocks.

  4. Cynthia Neale Reply

    Hi Ellie
    As a small child I remember going to Monkton House to visit my grandparents who managed the house and farm for the owner who lived abroad at the time. I have a couple of old black and white photos of the outside. I don’t really remember the inside although I do remember my grandfather taking us children to an aviary full of colourful birds.

    • Ellie Reply

      What an incredible story – I read that there was an aviary in the garden! But couldn’t find any pictures.

    • Prof. Dr. Hubertus Gassner Reply

      Dear Mrs. Neale,
      so interesting to hear of the black and white photos of Monkton House you hired from your grandparents as I suppose. I am living since nearly twenty years in the last house Edward James was building for himself when he came back from Mexico in 1980., It is in Liguria, Italy. He builded it from 1980-1982 and died here in December 1984. This house is also extraordinary, somewhat surrealistic with many elements from his sculpturegarden he was building in the Mexican dschungel for 20 years.
      That’s why I am very much interested to see your photos. Would this be possible via Email or What’s App? You would do a great favor for me. Thank you very much in advance.
      All the best
      Hubertus Gaßner

  5. Hi Ellie,

    As a Docent for The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, I always chat about Monkton House when I arrive with my tours at the vitrine housing one of the famous Lobster Telephones.

    How wonderful to have been “taken inside” by you in this blog post! Thank you!

  6. Pingback: Everything You Need to Know About Modern Surrealism in Fashion, Design and Dining | GIVVER

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