Making Dali famous is quite a big deal. For Edward James, ‘The English Surrealist’, this wasn’t his only achievement. You could say he brought surrealism to the world. As well as Dali’s, he also supported the careers of many other surrealists, such as Rene Magritte, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. He started a ballet company, a publishing company, and he financed the first surrealist magazine, Minotaur. He believed in outsider art, and created fantasy worlds in his Sussex home and in the Mexican jungle. Yet, despite this extraordinary contribution to the history of modern art, Google ‘modern art patrons’ and his name doesn’t come up.
So today, although his incredible life is pretty hard to summarise, I’m having a go in this blog post, to put him back into the spotlight.
Edward James was the son of an American millionaire railway magnate who moved to England and married an English socialite, Evelyn Forbes. (Side point: According to James he was actually the illegitimate son of King Edward VII, as his mother was said to have been one of the royal’s many mistresses, but that’s a whole other story.)
He had a conventional Edwardian upbringing in West Dean House on the vast West Dean Estate in West Sussex, which he always sought to escape from; and a conventional education at Eton College and Oxford University. Yet, he was far from conventional, a creative visionary with a great passion for the arts, particularly poetry, interests his mother tried endlessly to beat out of him.
When his father died, he inherited an eye-popping fortune including the entire West Dean estate. This meant he could finally explore his artistic passions for transforming the real into the fantasy. He would use his incredible wealth to sponsor artistic expression and explore the limits of imagination, supporting artists he felt needed his patronage, rather than those who were already fashionable.
At Oxford, he hung out with the Bright Young Things – a privileged, fashionable and bohemian set of relentless partygoers, including Cecil Beaton and Nancy Mitford, and his friend, Brian Howard, whose novel the Glass Omnibus he published, as well as Mount Zion, poems of Sir John Betjemen, on the Edward James Press.
He fell obsessively in love with an Austrian ballet dancer, Tilly Losch, whom he married. When the partnership ran into trouble and Tilly left, in a bid to entice her back, he financed an avant garde ballet company set up by George Balanchine – founder of the New York City Ballet – which ran in Paris and London. Les Ballets 1933 was a no-expense-spared elaborate set of seven ballets, for which James asked Tilly to be the lead ballerina, commissioned the most elaborate sets and costumes and scores by the best composers.
Tilly Losch was unfaithful to James, some say with Thomas Mitford, brother of the Mitford sisters. This broke James’ heart, and after a painful and bitter divorce, he set off for Europe. This would be when he first encountered the whacky world of surrealism, financing and co-edited the Paris-based surrealist journal, Minotaure, and published some of his own articles and poems in it. This is also the time he met Dali.
He’s crazier than all the Surrealists put together. They pretend, but he’s the real thing!”
These are words Salvador Dali has used to describe James. They met in Cadaqués in Catalonia in 1934/5, and Dali immediately knew he’d met someone he could finally work with. In 1937, Edward agreed to buy everything Dali made for a year, making him sign a strict contract. Although, James only ever received two of Dali’s paintings – including the one above – the rest seized by the Nazis on their way to London.
Around this time he was also introduced to Belgian Surrealist artist, Rene Magritte, whom he paid £250 to spend the summer of 1937 painting pictures for the drawing room walls in his London home – which ended up being some of his best-known works. Including portraits of James.
As time moved on, James became increasingly disillusioned and bored with stuffy upper-class life in England. Being the restless spiriting he was, in 1945 after the war ended, he took off again, this time for America. He lived in an artists colony in Taos, New Mexico for a while, before moving to California for a few years, where he practiced meditation and became a vegetarian.
During his time in LA, he started dreaming about finding an idyllic space where he could write poetry, so made his way to Mexico to visit friends – apparently with a menagerie of creatures including several parrots and a boa constrictor. Here he felt at home: “In England I was always criticised for being late and too illogical, so I constantly felt guilty. Here, being late and illogical is normal, so I don’t feel guilty!” He bought 300 acres of mostly rainforest and with the help of 150 Mexican workers and artisans, started building an extraordinary surrealist garden called Las Pozas – which you can visit today with a guide.
Built over a period of 25 years, at a personal cost of over five million dollars. It’s made entirely out of concrete and comprises 36 huge sculptures, including a grove of bamboo over 60 feet high and multi-story “buildings” in the shape of plants with a river running through them.
After 20 years, in 1964, he sold his considerable collection of art, which by then included works by Hieronymus Bosch, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Max Ernst. He used the money to establish the Edward James Foundation, a school for arts and crafts housed in the mansion he inherited at West Dean, which continues to offer support and education today. He also donated a body of works to Brighton Museum where the original sofa of Mae West’s lips can still be seen.
What a man! What a life! Luckily I unearthed this beautiful short film made in 1978 which captures his unique spirit, The Secret Life of Edward James narrated by the late jazz singer, art critic and writer George Melly. James and Melly were good friends, united by their passion for surrealism. James also published an autobiography, Swans Reflecting Elephants: My Early Years.
James never stopped travelling and died in 1984 after suffering a stroke on a visit to San Remo in Italy. He’s buried in St Roche’s Arboretum on the grounds of West Dean.