At home with Edward James

So yesterday we paid a brief visit to the far-flung digs of Austrian artist Alfred Kubin, and while we’re on creative spaces I thought I should pass on this video which I only came across recently. It’s a 1978 documentary concerning, and extensively featuring, Edward James, described by the narrator as “a legendary man most people have never heard of” and “the last of the great eccentrics”. That narrator, by the way, is no less a personage than jazz singer George Melly, of whom Quentin Crisp famously said “Mr Melly has to be obscene to be believed”.

Of course being “at home” with Edward James is a multinational undertaking. And people, what wonders the journey brings! James describes the travelling menagerie that is his life in the high, piping voice which contemporaries always remarked upon. His irascible temperament and bitterness are also much in evidence. There is little to contradict the impression that this hugely wealthy poet and patron was a victim of his ability to always get what he wanted.

His enormous inherited estate of West Dean is a case in point. Unhappy with his reputation as a collector and its attendant suggestion of dilettantism, James divested himself of an extraordinary collection of 20th century art and put the proceeds and the house at the service of a college. And yet we find him blithely trashing its pedagogical offerings on camera.

The entire panorama of James’s life is here: his patronage of Dalí and Magritte, his publishing ventures, the surreal interiors of his Lutyens-designed house Monkton and his marriage to Tilly Losch, including remarkable footage of the couple’s honeymoon in Hawaii. While James’s rancour about Tilly’s affairs and their subsequent divorce is still vivid, the documentary glosses over her counter suit accusing him of sleeping with men.

In Mexico City James checks into a hotel which allows him to keep (a lot of) live birds and catches up with artist Leonora Carrington, who died last year, then an amazingly youthful 70-odd. Naturally there is extensive footage of his estate in the town of Xilitla, where James was a combination feudal lord and cash cow. The nature of James’s later relationship with his factotum Plutarco, whose family he adopted as his own, is left to the viewer’s imagination. In any case this period seems to have provided the greatest happiness in a life which had no model of warm family life as reference.

Anyway, like I said, wonders. Enjoy!


  1. Oh, this has turned up at last, well done! I’ve been waiting for it to re-surface for years. The BBC hacked it down into a shorter version about Monkton in 1986, framed by George Melly wandering about the place. I’ve been intending on writing about Monkton for ages but most days all the time gets eaten by non-web work. James has fascinated me ever since I saw this documentary. There was a great exhibition of his collected art that I saw by chance in Brighton in 1998, the very informative catalogue can still be found cheaply, I think. Earlier this year I ordered a copy of his autobiography, Swans Reflecting Elephants, which Melly helped out with, and which apparently finished their friendship. The copy I bought was originally owned by the late Roy Jenkins, MP (he signed it inside). Being the work of two bisexual men it seemed rather appropriate that the book had been bought by the politician who helped decriminalise homosexuality in Britain.

    • I was worried that maybe this video had already been all over the place, so I’m glad it’s fresh (or its revival is fresh). I was kind of down on James after looking at his poetry and reading John Lowe’s largely negative biography, so I’d be interested to read Swans Reflecting Elephants. He doesn’t seem quite so slappable in the video, and I think Monkton and Las Pozas are evidence of a rare talent. Oh and didn’t Alastair put it about that he was Edward VII’s love child as well?

    • Charles Dukes

      Many thanks for posting The Secret Life of Edward James.

  2. butterscotchclouds

    Tilly Losch in motion! Why had I never thought to look for something that showcased this wonder? (I’m in the middle of viewing; I was going to leave the documentary on in the background while cooking, but had to take the pan off the stove and focus!) And now I can’t decide whether I want to be a famous Edwardian hostess or the child of a famous Edwardian hostess. Maybe by the end I’ll have my mind made up.

    • butterscotchclouds

      I’d rather be a famous Edwardian hostess. But now there are other things I must figure out:

      1. Plutarco’s wife. Clueless or Very Accepting?

      2. Does Oxford still let its students line their rooms in velvet?

      3. Where did the music that played in the background come from? The songs were all so catchy.

      4. How does one causally mention “One year, when my back was broken…” as though it’s an ailment as common as the flu?

      5. Who was that smoking, lantern-jawed blonde laughing with Carrington and the gang?

      6. Why was this little tidbit about the paw-printed carpet left out? (Assuming it’s true, which I’m going to because I can.)

      So many questions! So little time to get my caramelized onions back into form before dinner.

      • 1. Clued-up and accepting, I think. The whole family seemed to genuinely like him and to accept the odd set-up.
        2. I dare say they prefer it to Foo Fighters posters and oily BluTac residue.
        3. There’s no credit, sadly, and I would also like to know who did the titles. I’m sure I recognise that lettering style from somewhere. Anyone?
        4. He was the victim of a hit-and-run tree trunk on his Mexican estate, possibly launched by disgruntled workers…
        5. I wondered exactly that! Anyone??
        6. It’s true! There was quite a bit of selective editing, some kind of quid pro quo I imagine, a discretion which was the price of that kind of access.

      • butterscotchclouds

        A hit-and-run tree trunk?!

      • While EJ was supervising the clearance of forest on his Mexican estate, a felled tree trunk slipped and hit him. He was a pretty awful boss and there have been suggestions it was deliberate…

    • Amazing hands she had! To be honest I’m not sure being either an Edwardian hostess or child of same would be much fun. For someone with near limitless means and no obligations Edward James sure was an ornery old coot. Bon appetit!

  3. The doc is definitely a new posting anywhere, I’ve been searching for it for years. I got the re-edit from a UK TV swap site but the longer version–which they had playing in the Brighton gallery–has always proved elusive. It’s been no. 1 on my list of rare TV to find for years, no one ever seemed to have seen it. The shorter Melly film about Monkton does mention the Tilly Losch carpet, incidentally. I’ve not watched the longer one yet, I’m downloading it for later viewing. If I identify the music I’ll leave a note.

    As for James himself, I always admired the way he stuck with his Surrealist enthusiasms. So many British aristocrats are desperately dull (the Royals among them), he’s like a breath of William Beckford in the 20th century.

    • I would love to know who owns Monkton now, and if it is in the same state, because it must be the best example of a high-end Surrealist domestic environment.

  4. Simon Draper owns Monkton. Last I read he is the publisher Palawan.

  5. Barbara

    Hola, mi nombre es Bárbara Felix me gusto mucho que estuviera completo el reportaje de EJ mi padre Luis, trabajo con el tío Edward los últimos 10 años de su vida, le comente del video de tu blog y me platico que el había recogido al Sr. George Mely cuando vino a entrevistar a Edward, por cierto dejame platicarte que mi papa después de haber hecho una exposición sobre EDward James en la casa de la cultura( en la cual el invitado especial fue el amigo Desmond Guiness y Lord March) , donde se expuso el material que contiene acerca de 2000 documentos entre fotos, cartas del puño y letra con dibujos extraordinadrios del tío Edward, artículos personales, poemas inéditos y libros; me dio todo este material y estoy tratando de hacer una cronologia de sus últimos años para crear un libro de arte, donde se exponga a través de sus escritos su persona, estaremos en contacto muy padre tu blog saludos. Barbara desde San Luis Potosí México.

    • Carlos

      Hola Barbara, me gustaría saber como va tu libro…, Tengo mucho interés sobre el tema debido a que yo también escribo un trabajo sobre Las Pozas. Tal vez me puedas ayudar. Ojalá te puedas comunicar. Yo vivo en el D.F.

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  7. 💙 I lived at monkton in the early 1970’s I’m surprised I don’t remember his being filmed. 💙

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  9. Bob White

    The surrealist garden Las Pozas is now a virtual tour app for the iPhone & iPad:
    Small imbedded clips on James and historical photos from the Gastelum family can be found in the panoramas.

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  11. Reblogged this on Built to Roam and commented:
    A wonderful look at the great eccentric (and nomad) Edward James. An hour well spent for such a wealth of inspiration, though perhaps it’s best that we’re not all so fabulously rich as to indulge in such follies as James seemed powerless to avoid.

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