Monday, 30 November -0001

Whistler while you work

West Dean, once the home of the eccentric collector Edward James, and still sporting designs by Whistler and Dali, is now a place to learn a new arts and craft skill.

Written by Hugh St Clair

Edward James inherited a castellated mansion, 12,000 acres and four villages in Sussex, at the age of five in 1912. The house, West Dean, was furnished in Edwardian style with all kinds of stuffed animals, oak panelling and a minstrels’ gallery. James’s father was a wealthy landowner who married into the Scottish aristocracy and was determined to live the life of an English country gentleman to the full. He entertained Edward VII and Mrs Keppel who, as man and mistress, were not welcome at nearby Goodwood House.

By contrast, his son Edward was a huge benefactor to the arts, sponsoring ballets by choreographer George Balanchine in the 1930s, and supporting unknown artists Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Pavel Tchelitchew. He also launched John Betjeman’s first book of verse.

eward-jamesAustrian dancer Tilly Losch with husband Edward James c.1933

It was James’s lifelong wish that, even after his death, the artists and craftsmen would continue to benefit from his patronage. As early as 1939 he wrote to Aldous Huxley expressing his fear that after the war, craftsmen’s techniques would be lost. He said he intended to set up West Dean as an educational community to teach the crafts. However, it took 24 years before this was realised with the introduction of the Edward James Foundation. A further seven years ensued before West Dean College opened to students. Here they could learn about tapestry, enamelling, jewellery making, mosaic design, furniture making and restoration. The college still runs these courses, many of them residential, today.

West Dean continues to be the headquarters of the college. After James’s death in 1984, Christie’s held a sale of the contents of West Dean House and Monkton House, where James chose to live. Some of the furnishings and details remain at West Dean, including oak panels decorated with Surrealist art. James had installed classical pillars draped with fabrics, which gave a very theatrical feel to the house. He commissioned Rex Whistler to carve fruit baskets, butterflies and cartouches in the heavy oak minstrels’ gallery. Since Whistler was primarily an illustrator and painter, it is rare to find carved work by him.

phone-lobsterLobster Telephone created by Salvador Dali and Edward Janes in 1936

In the dining room, where the red walls are lined with family portraits, a carpet, designed by Whistler,
portrays Neptune surrounded by dolphins in a turquoise sea. This was not originally made for the room, but taken from James’s London home. Another carpet from there was woven during James’s short marriage to Austrian-born dancer Tilly Losch, and shows her wet footprints ascending the stairs. After the acrimonious divorce in which he accused her of adultery – her countersuit in which she claimed he was homosexual, failed – he commissioned a new carpet decorated with the footprints of his wolfhound instead, remarking bitterly he would rather commemorate the feet of a faithful creature.

Those who remember James describe him as an amusing and clever raconteur with a theatrical manner. Sharon-Michi Kusunoki, the curator and archivist at West Dean is a fund of knowledge about James, as well as the history of the house and contents. She reveals that a pair of pictures by the 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, still hanging in the house, is credited with sparking James’s interest in Surrealism. The compositions are of the head and bodies of Italian aristocrats depicted in different kinds of vegetables. James loved to make something into something else – there is a chair in situ at West Dean whose back is made of wooden arms and hands. He designed an artist’s studio in the shape of an artichoke  and collaborated with Salvador Dali on the famous lobster telephone and the Lips sofa (still in the house).

dining-roomDining table and chairs sit on a carpet designed by Rex Whistler in 1934

Sharon-Michi Kusunoki is editing the Edward James Letters, which includes correspondence with Dali and Magritte. She has observed that when it came to art, James wanted to be part of the creative process. He did not want to be seen as just paying artists to do as they pleased, and he refused to give Magritte and Dali, both chronically short of cash, a stipend when they asked for one.

James went on to write poetry, paint, and design wallpaper. He is buried in the St Roche’s Arboretum at West Dean and when making arrangements for his internment he wrote this epitaph for himself: ‘I have seen such beauty as one man has seldom seen; therefore will I be grateful to die in this little room, surrounded by the forests, the great green gloom.’

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