- A Surrealist Life by John Lowe
Collins, 262 pp, £18.00, February 1991, ISBN 0 00 217941 5
‘Am I eccentric?’ Edward James once asked me in the days before I was added to his long list of enemies both real and imaginary. ‘I suppose I am, but I don’t mean to be. I’ve always tried to behave like everyone else.’ We were sitting on the platform of one of the inevitably incomplete concrete follies he was building at enormous expense on a hillside he owned by proxy in a Mexican jungle. He was wearing a poncho, while a macaw, perched on his shoulder, was pulling hairs out of his beard, and I thought: is this how he thinks ordinary people behave? Is he mad? He probably was a bit mad – not dangerously so but mad nevertheless. But he was also rich: rich enough to fail, although he tried hard enough, to ruin himself; rich enough to buy himself out of trouble. It is very often money which transforms ‘mad’ into the less pejorative ‘eccentric’.
There have been several books on the life of Edward James (1907-1984) and two television documentaries. His father was an Anglicised American rentier, Willie James. His mother came from an impoverished but aristocratic Scottish family called Forbes. They had three daughters and then, after a considerable pause, Edward. Willie James died when Edward was five, leaving most of his estate in trust. Edward was to inherit that when he was 25, and his Uncle Frank’s fortune (he had been killed by an elephant) at his majority. He would then be a multimillionaire.
He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, which he left without a degree. He was for a short time an honorary attaché at the British Embassy in Rome, resigning in 1930. He had meanwhile fallen in love with a Viennese dancer, Tilly Losch, and married her in 1931. He divorced her (unusually for those days) in 1934. He had financed a season of ballet in an attempt to save the marriage, and was to remain, for less practical reasons, a patron of the arts for the rest of his life. He commissioned music and helped support many painters, notably Dali, Magritte and Tchelitchew, when they most needed it. Since his Oxford days – until an adverse review from Stephen Spender destroyed his confidence – he had published poetry (mostly his own) in luxurious limited editions. He also wrote one well-received novel, The Gardener who saw God.
He spent the Second World War in the United States, largely in California, where he was for a time attracted by the then fashionable mysticism of Gerald Heard. He also discovered Mexico, where he was later to spend much money building follies near Xilitla. After the war he travelled in Europe, staying, when his tax situation allowed it, at Monkton, a small house designed by Lutyens in the grounds of West Dean, his inherited estate near Chichester, which he had transformed during the Thirties into a Surrealist fantasy, incorporating several suggestions from Dali. In 1964, for tax purposes, he handed over most of his estate, its contents and the majority of his pictures to a trust bearing his name; it was decided to use the house as a college of arts and crafts, re-establishing lost skills and teaching all kinds of restoration. After initial problems, this became a self-supporting success. When James died in 1984, Monkton and its surrounding acres reverted to the trust and were sold off to provide further capital – despite some opposition from those who wished to preserve it as a Surrealist monument. Its owner was buried in the grounds of West Dean, under a simple slate slab. At his request, apart from his name and dates, there is one word carved on it: ‘poet’.
These are the bare facts, the scaffolding of a life from which Edward hung or displayed a series of fantasies, lies, broadsides, acts of generosity, polished monologues over dining-tables, hankerchiefs sodden with self-pity, accusations of treachery, and thousands of letters – some charmingly embellished in coloured inks and dispatched, however late, to their addressees, others libellous and vituperative, unposted and written solely to relieve his obsessions. There are also reams of poems, and endless projects abandoned or botched.
For many years Edward’s life went unremarked, his chaotic progress of interest only to those who had to try and cope with it. Then, in the Seventies – for whatever reason – he decided to go public, collaborating on several books and taking part in a documentary. The trouble was not only did he patrol his own life, imposing, insofar as he was able, his own and suspect version of it, but he always turned against the end-product and its author. Philip Purser, for instance (‘Nosy Parker’ in Edward’s usual post-publication demonology), tried hard, in his short but entertaining The Extraordinary Worlds of Edward James (1978), to achieve detachment, but there is inevitably a feel of his subject’s breath on the back of his neck, and of course he was forced to rely in the main on James’s version of events. Even Purser’s revised and extended book, retitled Poeted: The Final Quest of Edward James,[*] while correcting some errors and incorporating some unfriendly opinions, is still in thrall to Edward’s mythomania. As for my own Swans Reflecting Elephants (1982), this, being entirely in Edward’s own words – an edited version of four and a half days tape-recording – is even less reliable. People warned me that, although I had been recruited to perform this task, he would turn against me, but I couldn’t imagine on what grounds. They were right, of course. I’d ‘tricked’ him into recording his memoirs. He had intended to talk only about his friendship with the Surrealists. ‘But I shall have my revenge on Melly,’ he told everybody in that rapid Edwardian dowager’s voice. ‘I shall ruin his position in English society!’
Lowe, however, is writing with the slate slab firmly in place in the West Dean arboretum, and with full access to the Edward James archives now reassembled from all over the world. The result, while not as entertaining as its subject’s own fairy stories, is admirably objective. This is all the more commendable in that Lowe suffered more than most: for six years he was the principal of West Dean College, at a time when Edward was doing his utmost to sabotage its prospects and ridicule its achievements – the college’s charter allowed him the power of veto. ‘I didn’t give away a fortune,’ he’d say, ‘so that a middle-class couple could spend a weekend learning to make corn dollies for less than it would cost them to stay at an hotel in Torquay.’ Only in the preface, and in the chapter describing how the college was turned round despite Edward’s worst efforts to prevent it, does Lowe’s detachment crack.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of Lowe’s sleuth-like approach is his informed guess at James’s true paternity. Rumour long had it that he was the son of Edward VII, who did indeed stay frequently at West Dean during Willie’s lifetime. Edward denied this on the grounds that not only was the King always accompanied by either Queen Alexandra or Mrs Keppel, but Willie James was too honourable to perform the role of mari complaisant – although, again according to Edward, he accepted that his youngest daughter Audrey was the child of Sir Edward Grey. Edward was not prepared to relinquish altogether the romantic cachet of royal blood, so he promulgated the ingenious notion that it was his mother and not he who was the King’s bastard, conceived many years before in the Scottish heather – and that there was a bundle of letters, bound in pink ribbon, to prove it. Lowe has read the royal letters at West Dean (which is more than Edward ever did) and he claims there is nothing in them to confirm either version. His conclusion is that Edward was most likely the natural son of one Colonel Brinton, a friend of the family who withdrew from their circle four months before Edward was born, only to resurface after Willie’s death and marry his widow with almost Claudius-like dispatch. Certainly Brinton seems to have been fond of Edward – not that he got much credit for it.
But then who did get credit from Edward James? Only his father, who, in memory, became more and more saint-like as the years went by, and a series of nannies, gardeners, governesses and servants (who, against all odds, tended to remain in his service). He loathed two of his sisters, the third he regarded simply as a cretin, but it was his mother who earned his virulent hatred. Lowe’s view of her is that, although she had all the failings of her age and her class, she had some qualities: even Edward acknowledged her taste. Undoubtedly she resented the fact that, due to a new law, her husband’s death duties had to be paid in cash and that this meant she couldn’t afford to go on living at West Dean, which had to be rented out until Edward inherited. She was certainly narrow, snobbish, extravagant, and pruriently obsessed with homosexuality, but when she died Edward was only in his twenties, and yet he nurtured his venomous feelings until his own death fifty years later. Could it have been doubts as to his paternity (‘I have the James’s beaky nose’) which forced him to turn a probably tiresome and self-willed woman into a fury who pursued him to the grave?
But what really did for him, what transformed a land-owning, fox-hunting aesthete into a disorganised Wandering Jew, a rich but despairing Flying Dutchman, was his disastrous marriage, which even the sceptical Lowe describes as ‘made in hell’. Tilly, a fascinating Lulu-like gold digger, believed she was marrying a homosexual, with a view to divorcing him later in exchange for a substantial settlement. She was wrong in that: not only was he in love with her, but when he eventually turned, he not only divorced her but won. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, and his despair, as well as inspiring a few poems infinitely superior to his usual neoclassical outpourings, drove him into his well-heeled wilderness. From then on he was never to stay anywhere for more than three months.
As to Tilly’s suspicions, Edward was certainly bisexual, but I got the impression that, despite several affairs with women, and a long unrequited passion for the film actress Ruth Ford, he was mostly gay, at any rate towards the end of his life. Even so, he tended to hop in and out of the closet and to protest rather too much that, because of his mother’s hysteria on the subject, he had remained an innocent and a prig for far too long. Even in old age he could be incredibly self-deceiving. He told me in Mexico that a young man of his – rather a nice one actually and genuinely helpful in sorting out the chaos of Edward’s daily life – really loved him. He knew this, he explained, because he watched him covertly in a looking-glass, and the young man’s devoted expression didn’t change. The idea that the young man wasn’t aware of this stratagem was ludicrous. Yet Edward could be very cruel towards his lovers, playing one off against the other, or making promises he had no intention of keeping. On the other hand, his treatment of Plutarco, a Mexican postal official and near-saint who had been his ‘secretary’ in the Fifties, was exemplary. Plutarco eventually married with Edward’s blessing, and his house in Xilitla, facing the burgeoning follies across the valley, became the nearest thing to a proper home Edward ever had. He was godfather to Plutarco’s children and left them all his Mexican property. Ireland was the only other place where he seemed almost happy in his later years, and it was at Desmond and Penny Guinness’s Regency-gothic house near Dublin that I tape-recorded Swans. There were plenty of dinner parties at which Edward could recite, with a deceptive air of spontaneity, those well-honed monologues in which formidable Edwardian aunts and the bright young people of the Twenties came to vivid life. His hosts, too, were tolerant of the blocked lavatory system, the result of his phobia of germs and consequent over-use of paper, and the chaotic evidence of his raids on the kitchen during the small hours. Above all, the Irish are unfazed by eccentricity, and tend to share Edward’s relaxed view of time – a characteristic which had complicated his life since his days at Eton.
Lowe’s book will and should be the last. It ignores the poetry, but Purser covers that. It hardly mentions the pictures either, but I’m not sure that matters too much. Edward was telling the truth when he called himself an enabler rather than a collector. He had a feeling for theatrical decor, and Magritte and Dali, together with many other lesser fantasists, fitted the bill. He was lucky in his time, but I am not sure he really understood the philosophical preoccupations of the great Surrealists he acquired. Certainly he had no regrets when it came to selling them. Will he be remembered? Well, not for his poetry, which is what he hoped for. It’s too derivative and slapdash. The great paintings he acquired are dispersed. The follies, marvellous as they are – and I would put them in the same league as the Palace of the Facteur Cheval and the Watts Towers – are impossible to preserve. There remains the college. Almost against James’s will and despite his early sabotage, this is a success in practical terms. It also helps to preserve and restore, to make and weave, those manmade artifacts – clocks, furniture, carpets, tapestries, musical instruments – which, apart from nature and his ill-starred animals, were its founder’s only comfort.
[*] Quartet, 211 pp., £6.95, 18 February, 0 7093 0139 3.