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!