Sussex in the UK must have been a real spot back in the day. A home to The Bloomsbury Group, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose to name just a few. There is one name that often gets overlooked despite his incredible life. Edward James was an underrated, little known art world contributor, collector and patron of surrealism, who believed passionately in outsider art. James was the heir to an American railway fortune and his parents huge 6,000 acre estate in West Dean, including ‘Monkton House’, a six bedroom lodge designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1902.
James wasn’t a fan of Lutyens style and in the 1930s, along with the creative input by his dear friend Salvador Dali, he transformed this house into a surrealist heaven. He painted the façade a beetle juice purple and the front door pink. The pillars were converted into fibreglass palm trees and the drainpipes resembled sticks of bamboo!
The interiors were just as fabulous and fun. Like us, James loved using fabric on walls and his home was filled with surrealist art and artefacts. At Oxford University, he was part of the Brideshead generation of ‘Bright Young Things’, and developed a dilettantish interest in the arts, especially poetry. He decorated his Christ Church rooms with Flemish tapestries, silk lined walls and a purple ceiling. He started the James Press, which published luxurious editions of his poetry and the first book of his close friend John Betjeman. He never graduated from Oxford and instead took up a job as a junior diplomat in Rome, the only employment he ever had, where – with his Rolls-Royce and palazzo on the Tiber, he lived a more luxurious life than the ambassador. After several months, he was fired after nearly causing a diplomatic incident with a mistranscribed cable.
Monkton House was decorated in a mixture of styles that both reflected and defied the taste of the period including a bathroom of alabaster, complete with sun and moon nightlights. Our absolute favourite element of the house has to be the stair runner. James was married briefly to the actress and Tilly Losch and he had her foot prints woven into the fabric design. Losch cheated on James numerous times and never actually came back to England with him after their marriage in New York.
James devised an elaborate scheme to win his wife back. He funded George Balanchine’s company Les Ballets in 1933, an idea suggested to him by Coco Chanel. This was on the condition that a role was created for Losch, who had trained with the Vienna Opera Ballet. She did indeed return to Paris to star in the review, dancing one ballet in a salamander green dress with a 15-foot-long train designed by Pavel Tchelitchew and in another, The Seven Deadly Sins, which James persuaded Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to write. When the latter transferred to the Savoy Theatre in London, James redecorated his Wimpole Street house to please her, incorporating a modernist chrome and black bathroom designed by Paul Nash with an electric heater and a ballet barre. He also commissioned a special Rolls-Royce with a double bed, to transport her to West Dean after performances. The ballet cost him £100,000 (he claimed to have spent the same on jewels for his wife at Cartier), but his grand gesture was ultimately unsuccessful. James replaced the stair runner at Monkton with one a new one – woven with the footprint patterns of his Irish wolfhound instead!
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. West Dean House became West Dean College.
Later on, in 1981 he auctioned many of his Dali works at Christies. In the mid-1980s, his foundation had put Monkton House and its contents up for sale. Unfortunately English Heritage lost its seven-month campaign to save Monkton.
We say cheers to Edward James and celebrate his eccentricity!