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Edward William Frank James (1907–1984) was a British poet known for his patronage of the surrealist art movement.

Early life and marriage

Edward James was born August 16, 1907, the only son of William James, an American railroad magnate who moved to England and married Evelyn Forbes, a Scots socialite, who was reputedly fathered by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). He had four older sisters: Audrey, Millicent, Xandra, and Silvia. James was educated briefly at Etonmarker, and then at Le Roseymarker in Switzerland, then at Christ Church, Oxfordmarker, where he was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. In 1912 he inherited the West Dean Housemarker in Sussex, on the death of his father.

James' first sponsorship of note was in publishing John Betjeman's first book of poems when at Oxford. He worked with Brian Howard on the Glass Omnibus. After Oxford, James had a brief career as a trainee diplomat at the embassy in Romemarker. He was asked to send a coded message to London that the Italians had laid the keels for three destroyers, but got the code wrong; the message said "300 destroyers". Shortly after this he was sent "on indefinite leave".

In the early 1930s, James married Tilly Losch, an Austrian dancer choreographer, actress and painter. He had several productions created expressly for her, the most notable of which was Les Ballets 1933, which included Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and George Balanchine. He and Boris Kochno commissioned that year Brecht and Weill's last collaboration, The Seven Deadly Sins, which Balanchine produced, directed and choreographed.

James divorced Losch in 1934, accusing her of adultery with Prince Serge Obolensky, an American hotel executive; her countersuit, in which she made it clear that James was homosexual, failed. James was in fact bisexual. After the divorce, James joined a social set in England which included the Mitford sisters and the composer Lord Berners.


James is best known as a passionate and early supporter of Surrealism, a movement that was born from the political uncertainty and upheaval between the wars. Rejecting the bourgeois' dominating rationality, surrealists escaped into a world of fantasy and irrationality. He sponsored Salvador Dalí for the whole of 1938 and his collection of paintings and art objects that subsequently came to be accepted as the finest collection of surrealist work in private hands. He also provided practical help, supporting Dalí for about two years and allowing Magritte to stay in his London house to do some paintings.

James appeared in three famous surrealist paintings:

Each suggests an alienated person. In the first, James looks away from the centre; in the second he looks into a mirror which shows the back of his head; in the third James's head is a fireball.

As well as Dalí and Magritte, his art collection included works by Bosch, De Chirico, Paul Klee, Leonora Carrington, Pavel Tchelitchew, Pablo Picasso, Giacometti, Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux, amongst others. Most were sold at a well-publicized sale at Christies two years after his death.

His intellectual interest in surrealism is demonstrated by his sponsorship of Minotaure, a lavish Surrealist magazine published in Paris. His refurbishment of Monkton House, in a part of the West Dean Estate, was a Surrealist dream. It was done in collaboration with the pioneering British decorator, Syrie Maugham, and has some of the most iconic Surrealist works on display, including the large sofa to which Dalí gave the form and colour of Mae West's lips, and his Lobster Telephone in white. His most fantastic surrealist creation was realised in the Mexican rain forest, a surrealist Sculpture garden, "Las Pozas" (see below).

New Mexico

In 1940, James showed up in Taos, New Mexicomarker, United Statesmarker, as a guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan, where he was known for his amusing, clever eccentricity and effeminate manner. In Taos, he met the Hon. Dorothy Brett, an impoverished British aristocrat and painter, who in 1941 sold him nine paintings for $580. He later invited the 70 year-old Brett (as she was known) to return to England and reside at West Dean, but she declined.

Las Pozas

Las Pozas ("the Pools") is a sculpture garden built by James, more than above sea level, in a tropical rain forest in the mountains of Mexicomarker. It includes more than of natural waterfalls and pools interlaced with towering Surrealist sculptures in concrete.
The surrealist garden at Las Pozas, Xilitla.

Las Pozas is near the village of Xilitla, San Luis Potosímarker, a seven-hour drive north of Mexico City. In the early 1940s, James went to Los Angelesmarker, and then decided that he "wanted a Garden of Eden set up . . . and I saw that Mexico was far more romantic” and had "far more room than there is in crowded Southern California.” In Cuernavacamarker, he hired Plutarco Gastelum, then a young manager of a telegraph office, as a guide. The two found Xilitla in November 1945.

In Xilitla, Plutarco married a local woman and had four children. They all lived with "Uncle Edward", as the children called James, in a house Plutarco had built, a mock-Gothic cement castle, now a hotel - La Posada El Castillo. James owned hundreds of birds and about 40 dogs, and once took his pet boa constrictors to the Hotel Francis in Mexico Citymarker.

Between 1949 and 1984, James built thirty-six concrete follies - palaces, temples and pagodas, including the House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof like a Whale, and the Staircase to Heaven.There were also plantings and beds full of tropical plants, including orchids - there were, apparently, 29,000 at Las Pozas at one time - and a variety of small casas (homes), niches, and pens that held exotic birds and wild animals from the world over. Massive sculptures up to four stories tall punctuate the site. The many trails throughout the garden site are composed of steps, ramps, bridges and narrow, winding walkways that traverse the valley walls.Construction of Las Pozas cost more than $5 million. To pay for it, James sold his collection of Surrealist art at auction.
Las Pozas, Xilitla.

In the summer of 2007, the Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández, the company Cemexmarker, and the government of San Luis Potosímarker paid about $2.2 million for Las Pozas and created Fondo Xilitla, a foundation that will oversee the preservation and restoration of the site. There are plans not only to restore the garden to its former glory, but to put it on the world art map. In November 2007, those behind the revival met at the garden to discuss the plans for restoration, and to celebrate the centenary of James's birth.

West Dean

In 1964, James gave his English estate which included West Dean Housemarker at West Deanmarker to a charitable trust. The Edward James Foundation comprises West Dean College, a centre for the preservation of traditional arts and crafts, through short courses and full-time Diplomas and MAs. One of only two professional Tapestry Weaving studios in the UK, an Art Gallery are all housed on a estate which is open to the public through the West Dean Gardens.

West Dean College is part of the Edward James Foundation set up in 1971 in response to James' vision of establishing “an educational foundation where creative talents can be discovered and developed, and where one can spread culture through the teaching of crafts and the preservation of knowledge that might otherwise be destroyed or forgotten”.

Edward James is buried in the St Roche's Arboretum at West Deanmarker, with the simple inscription Edward James 1907 - 1984 Poet. The stone was carved by John Skelton.
The St Roche's Arboretum at West Dean


I have seen such beauty as one man has seldom seen;

therefore will I be grateful to die in this little room,

surrounded by the forests, the great green gloom

of trees my only gloom - and the sound, the sound of green.

Here amid the warmth of the rain, what might have been

is resolved into the tenderness of a tall doom

who says: 'You did your best, rest - and after you the bloom

of what you loved and planted still will whisper what you mean.

And the ghosts of the birds I loved, will attend me each a friend;

like them shall I have flown beyond the realm of words.

You, through the trees, shall hear them, long after the end

calling me beyond the river. For the cries of birds

continue, as - defended by the cortege of their wings -

my soul among strange silences yet sings.

Edward James, Poet 1907 - 1984

  • E. James, "The Bones of my Hand", privately printed, London 1930.
  • E. James, The Glass Omnibus, privately printed, London 1934.
  • E. James, The Gardener Who Saw God, 1937
  • George Melly (ed), Swans Reflecting Elephants, My Early Years, Autobiography of Edward James (Weidenfeld, London 1982).

Portrait Sculpture

An early marble portrait sculpture of Edward James exists, by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi.


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