Edward James


Occasional Writings

Edward James (1907-84) was a rich patron and collector who supported Dali and Magritte. He inherited the West Dean estate in West Sussex from his father but in 1964 donated it as a centre for arts and crafts. It remains a success but James disapproved of the way it was run and in the late 1970s told George Melly, who was co-authoring his memoirs: ‘I didn’t sign away a fortune so that middle-class couples could enjoy a rather cheaper holiday, as if they were in an hotel in Torquay’.1

After Eton James went to Christ Church, Oxford where he was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton and John Betjeman, whose work he supported, but he was eccentric and aspects of his life turned out to be as surreal as the painters he admired so much.

In 1931 James married the celebrated Austrian dancer-actress Tilly Losch (1907-75) but they parted in a scandalous divorce three years later. After this James was ostracised and left England. But in 1998 Melly looked back at the evidence: ‘I am convinced James was telling the truth when he said Losch married him believing him to be gay and planning to divorce him on these grounds for a great deal of money. In those days a gentleman was expected to accept his role as the guilty party. James didn’t. He countersued, on the grounds of serial adulteries and abortions, handled his own defence and won – “the act of a cad”. For this society didn’t forgive him.’2

In 1937 James published his novel ‘The Gardener who saw God’3 and as the war came he moved to Mexico where he lavished large sums of money on building his fantastic surrealist paradise called La Posas near Xilitala in Mexico.

On 3 November 1977 Gavin Bryars spoke to Edward James on the telephone. It was during this conversation that James recalled having been at a party in Hollywood, in about 1950, when Stravinsky was present and he was asked who he considered the best British composer. James expected him to say Walton or Britten but he replied: ‘Lord Berners’.

Bryars Visited Edward James On 31 May 1978

‘I spent a whole day with him at Monckton, the Edwin Lutyens lodge, redesigned by Dali, on what was left of his estate in West Sussex. It was impossible to record our conversations as we were in and around the house which contained the original sofa in the shape of Mae West’s lips designed by Salvador Dali and many paintings by Magritte.

We walked through the thousand-acre arboretum containing his collection of rare trees and rare pheasants. It was a very hot day, and we swam nude in the

heated pool which we came across in the middle of the woods. It was under a glass dome, entirely circular and hemispherical like a large bowl, so there was no real bottom. It was kept permanently at exactly the temperature of the water in which James swam in Mexico. I wrote my notes immediately afterwards, like transcribing

a dream on awaking.

This visit provoked a comment which, to me, represents the highest praise. Robert Heber-Percy told me that Edward called him just after I left to ask: ‘Who was that eccentric young man you sent to see me?’ Being termed an eccentric by Edward James, in conversation with Robert Heber Percy, is quite something…. and I wasn’t even trying!

From Gavin Bryars’ Notes On His Visit

Edward James said he met Berners shortly after he had inherited the barony in 1919. This was at the house of James’ aunt, Mrs Arthur James, who was later caricatured by Berners as Mrs Pontefract in Percy Wallingford.4 Physically Berners was the same all his life, although he became a bit balder later. He was short, dapper, well-dressed, with a quiet slightly gravely voice. His laugh was a combination of a chuckle and clearing the throat.

Like Berners, Edward James had been a diplomatic attaché in Rome (1929) and was put on indefinite leave for his error in sending a ciphered signal to the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, about three keels being laid by Mussolini at the port of Spezia. James’s signal referred to thirty keels by mistake. Since the message was received on a Friday, the Prime Minister had gone to Chequers and so had to be brought back to London. If Italy had really laid thirty keels they would have been violating the treaty on naval disarmament that stabilised fleets at their existing levels.

James remembered a jealous triangle when Berners, Robert Heber Percy and Peter Watson were together in Venice in 1932. Some of this was reflected in The Girls of Radcliff Hall where Watson was Lizzie.5 James knew that Heber Percy had punched Cecil Beaton in 1977 because of what he had written in his diary.6 But James, like Lady Mosley, confirmed that Heber-Percy had in fact looked after Berners very well.7

Like Berners’ novels James’ The Gardener who saw God has elements of the roman a clef. Lady Cunard appears as Lady Judas Iscariot – Christopher Sykes’ name for her – but she also comes in under her own name to disguise the other portrayal.

James remembered that at the performance of A Wedding Bouquet Gertrude Stein hogged all the applause, bumping Berners back into the wings with her ‘big bum’.8 He claimed that since the text consisted of bits and pieces from Stein the words were really Berners’ too. James thought Stein lived off her reputation for having known all the French artists and that she made feeble attempts at profundity. He said Picasso would fly into a rage if anyone mentioned her name during the last thirty years of his life.

James was once annoyed about something and showed Berners an angry letter which he had written. Berners told him: ‘My father always said one should never trust a man with a grievance’. James realised that he was merely airing his grievance and so he didn’t send the letter. He had the impression that Berners admired his father a lot. Although there was always a distance in his talk about his father there was at the same time admiration – and humour, as the autobiographies show.

James used to stay at Berners’ house in Rome, 3 Foro Romano, and once spent a month there on his own, but he found Berners’ manservant and caretaker Tito unbearably rude. Apparently, when Berners was away, he used the front of the house as an antique shop and resented intruders.

When Berners visited James he used to stay at West Dean rather than Monkton – his visits included post-war Christmases in the 1940s. James often visited Faringdon after his divorce when almost everyone turned against him. Berners maintained his friendship unchanged. James thought this was brave and characteristic and compared it with his similar loyalty to the Mosleys.

[1] Edward James, ed. George Melly, Swans reflecting Elephants, London 1982. (This is also the title of a painting by Dali from 1937.) All went smoothly in this collaboration but when Auberon Waugh attacked the book in the Evening Standard Melly got the blame and James turned against him.

[2] George Melly, ‘Strange Reflections’, Daily Telegraph, Arts and Books, 11 April 1998, 7.

[3] An English Lord appears who has a gothic castle in Berkshire but the resemblance to Faringdon is slight and cloaked in surrealist fantasy. ‘In his extensive grounds and gardens, on the elms of his park and among the fountains of his pleasure lawns, the surrealist peer had lavishly practised and installed the theories and emblems of the new movement; grand pianos carved in marble might be seen perched in the upper branches and colossal poached eggs of painted alabaster swam or seemed to swim like nenuphars in the pools… One was so trapped by the trompe-l’oeils on every hand and worried by the entanglements of wire and coloured enamels designed by Joan Miro which swung along the heads of the hedges….’ The Gardener who saw God, London, 1937, 268-9. The new gardener had been told the Lord was mad but found he talked sense about horticultural matters. Then he noticed that the head of the enamel and platinum tiepin ‘which held the good lord’s sober, grey silk tie tidily in place…represented a miniature poached egg’. But James’ Lord had a habit of singing snatches of operatic arias from Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov at the top of his voice when walking through the gardens – something Berners would never have done. 272-3

[4] First published as Percy Wallingford and Mr Pidger, Blackwells, Oxford, 1941. Berners inscribed a copy of this paperback to Constant Lambert: ‘To Constant from Gerald “En zee esklabusteten eenden Tetz mit klinkoftenfelt” Feb. 1942. TRANS Percy Wallingford is included in Collected Tales and Fantasies, New York, 1999.

[5] The Girls of Radcliffe Hall, printed for private circulation by Berners. For clues to the roman a clef see…

[6] Cecil Beaton, Diaries CITE

[7] See interview with Lady Mosley, p

[8] According to Mark Amory, Stein was not quite so officious. Lord Berners: the Last Eccentric, London, 1998, 169-70. A Wedding Bouquet was given at Sadlers Wells, London, on 27 April 1937 (the 1936 date on the published score is wrong). The choreography was by Frederick Ashton; the young Margot Fonteyn danced the drunk Julia; and Constant Lambert conducted.

Gavin Bryars