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The surreal legacy of Edward James

Works by artists including Salvador Dalí and Pavel Tchelitchew are to be offered alongside a mix of Old Master paintings and English and Continental furniture on 15 December in London

Surrealism ran through the whole life of Edward James, the visionary patron and close confidante to some of the most significant artists in the movement, including René Magritte and Salvador Dalí.

‘He was touched by genius,’ says Orlando Rock, UK Chairman at Christie’s, ‘and the inspirational Surrealist fantasies that he created at Monkton [James’s home on the West Dean Estate] and elsewhere are testimony to his visionary patronage.’

On 15 December, Christie’s will present selected works of art from The Edward James Foundation as part of Classic Week in London. Iconic pieces that trace the development of Surrealism and reflect the tastes of Edward James will be offered alongside a selection of objects from West Dean House, collected by generations of previous owners.

Edward James, circa late 1920s

Edward James, circa late 1920s

Edward James at El Castillo, his home in Mexico © Avery Danziger 1976-2008. All rights reserved.

Edward James at El Castillo, his home in Mexico © Avery Danziger 1976-2008. All rights reserved.

Edward James was the youngest of five children. As the only son, he inherited the West Dean Estate in Sussex when he was 25. The wealth of his father, William Dodge James originated from the American copper mining and railroad industries, and in 1889 he married Evelyn Forbes, a socialite and close friend of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.

‘With the king as his godfather, an education at Eton and Oxford and a large inheritance,’ wrote Desmond Guinness, ‘Edward James might have seemed cut out for a conventional rich upper-class life. However, his character and talents determined otherwise.’

After leaving university, James married the Austrian dancer Tilly Losch and with her briefly lived in Paris, where he soon started collaborating with the avant-garde circle around Paul Eluard, André Breton and most importantly Salvador Dalí, who said of him, ‘Edward is as insanely relentless as myself’. 

Salvador Dalí and Edward James, A sofa in the form of Mae West’s lips, 1938. Estimate £250,000-400,000. This work is offered in A Surreal Legacy Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí and Edward James, A sofa in the form of Mae West’s lips, 1938. Estimate: £250,000-400,000. This work is offered in A Surreal Legacy: Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí

James was a generous and supportive patron who financed the careers of several artists — in 1937, he bought Dalí’s entire output in return for a generous salary — as well as financing the Surrealist magazine Minotaure for a time, which was published between 1933 and 1939. Both Dalí and Magritte were regular guests at James’s London residence, 35 Wimpole Street, and were involved in the creation of the interiors there, contributing works of art themselves and being heavily involved in their display, as well as the decor and furnishings.

Highlights of the auction include A sofa in the form of Mae West’s lips, A pair of Champagne standard lamps and Lobster Telephone (white aphrodisiac), all of which were designed by Dalí and Edward James together and were made by Green & Abbott.

Salvador Dalí and Edward James, One of a pair of Champagne standard lamps, 1938. Estimate £100,000-150,000. This work is offered in A Surreal Legacy Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí and Edward James, One of a pair of Champagne standard lamps, 1938. Estimate: £100,000-150,000. This work is offered in A Surreal Legacy: Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí

Another artist whose career James nurtured was the Russian Neo-Romanticist Pavel Tchelitchew, who created a sketch at West Dean House in 1934 that would instigate a long artistic relationship. James acquired an extensive collection of Tchelitchew’s work, a large group of which is included in the sale. 

Pavel Tchelitchew, The Concert, 1933. Estimate £250,000-350,000. This work is offered in A Surreal Legacy Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London

Pavel Tchelitchew, The Concert, 1933. Estimate: £250,000-350,000. This work is offered in A Surreal Legacy: Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London

Having transformed Monkton, on the West Dean Estate, into a Surrealist fantasy before the war, James went on to spend much of his time in America, where increasingly his efforts were focused on architecture. His Surrealist dreams were realised in their most extraordinary form near Xilitla, a small town in the mountains of Mexico, with the purchase of 100 acres of rainforest where he erected a fantastical garden of what Desmond Guinness described as ‘poured-cement follies’.

Edward James at The Eye Pool, Xilitla, Mexico © Avery Danziger 1976-2008. All rights reserved.

Edward James at The Eye Pool, Xilitla, Mexico © Avery Danziger 1976-2008. All rights reserved.

‘Edward James is best remembered for his brilliance in inspiring and empowering those around him, but his deserved reputation as a major patron of the Surrealists tells only part of the story,’ explains Andrew Waters, Director of Sales for Decorative Arts and Private Collections at Christie’s. ‘He demonstrated a unique ability to create a sense of magic in whatever he did, and one of his most evident talents was his instinct to create environments full of surprise and wonder.’

During the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, West Dean had been the home of the Peachey family, whose portraits hang on the walls of the state rooms. Sir James Peachey, later 1st Lord Selsey, commissioned James Wyatt to remodel the house in 1805, who also supplied the house with Gothic seat furniture, a selection of which is included in the sale. 

Interior of West Dean House showing a selection of Gothic seat furniture and Portrait of a Boy Playing Golf by the Shore by Bartholomeus van der Helst. Estimate £100,000-150,000. These works are offered in A Surreal Legacy Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London

Interior of West Dean House showing a selection of Gothic seat furniture and Portrait of a Boy Playing Golf by the Shore by Bartholomeus van der Helst. Estimate: £100,000-150,000. These works are offered in A Surreal Legacy: Selected Works of Art from the Edward James Foundation on 15 December at Christie’s London

When Edward James’ father, William James, purchased West Dean in 1891, he also acquired many Peachey heirlooms, to which he added his own acquisitions to create the archetypal Edwardian country house.

Highlights among the acquisitions of William James to be offered for sale include a pair of Louis XVI ormolu-mounted, blue-ground porcelain ‘lacrimal’ vases, reputedly from Versailles (c. 1782, estimate £80,000-120,000); an Empire patinated-bronze and green porphyry tazza (circa 1800-08, estimate: £50,000-80,000) brought back from Russia in about 1808 by Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, later 10th Duke of Hamilton; and Portrait of a Boy Playing Golf by the Shore, by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670, estimate: £100,000-150,000).