The Edward James Archive: eclectic, educational and international

A key milestone in the project to catalogue the Edward James Archive has been reached with the completion of the first section, the Cultural Papers, and work is progressing on the important Biographical and Personal section. The Cultural Papers are an outstanding and diverse collection of material which largely comprises James’s correspondence with many major artists, writers and composers and, unusually, contains original artwork and manuscripts by several of these individuals. Other material includes photographs, rare signed books, newspaper cuttings, other printed items and sound recordings. Much of the correspondence is in French, with letters in Italian, German and other languages also found. The majority of foreign language letters are accompanied by later English translations.


Surrealist associations and projects

The Cultural Papers illuminate James’s remarkably diverse patronage of the arts, which began in the early 1930’s, and, also, his ‘creative friendships’ with artists such as Salvador Dalí and Leonora Carrington and composers such as Francis Poulenc. The James-Dalí correspondence (in French) includes over fifty original letters, postcards and telegrams from Dalí and his wife Gala and covers a wide range of artistic and personal matters. Dalí’s letters often contain small rough sketches including a notable early drawing of the idea for his painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Among the letters is an original 1936 contract between James and Dalí for the production of a particular painting by Dalí. Some correspondence relates to their collaboration on Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion for the World’s Fair exhibition in New York in 1939. A rare vinyl recording of Dalí’s accompanying ‘Dream of Venus’ poem recited by James’s friend, the American actress Ruth Ford, has been added to the Cultural Papers and copied to digital format.

The Cultural Papers document how various individuals and projects were connected through Edward James’s activities, particularly in the field of Surrealism. For a period in the 1930’s he financed and co-edited the Paris-based surrealist journal, Minotaure, and published some of his own articles and poems in it. We have a copy of Minotaure No. 8 (1936) containing his poems ‘Trois Secheresses’, with illustrations by Dalí. Francis Poulenc set these poems to music and his original score for this piece, titled Secheresses, is also included in the Cultural Papers.

Another important group of James’s correspondence is with the Belgian Surrealist artist, René Magritte, who stayed at James’s London house at 35 Wimpole Street for a period in 1937.  On a number of Magritte’s letters are his rough drawings of ideas which he subsequently developed into paintings.  Among these are sketches for his portrait of James titled The Pleasure Principle (1937) and the painting, Homesickness (1940). We also hold an original print of the photographic portrait by Man Ray, the Paris-based artist and photographer, which Magritte used for The Pleasure Principle. Among James’s other notable correspondents in the field of Surrealist art were his close friends, the Russian Pavel Tchelitchew, who had worked on set design for Les Ballets 1933 (see below), and Leonora Carrington (described in previous blog post). The Tchelitchew correspondence (1933-1951) is particularly informative concerning his career and his friendship with James. Among the British artists who feature in the Cultural Papers are Paul Nash, Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler. There are original drawings by the latter two resulting from their commissions to illustrate some of James’s published books of poetry and prose in the 1930s.

Ballet, musical and literary interests

James’s first major work of patronage was his financing of Les Ballets 1933, a ballet company founded by Boris Kochno and George Balanchine which performed in Paris and London (the Savoy Theatre) in June 1933. Les Ballets produced six new ballets, including The Seven Deadly Sins by composer Kurt Weill and librettist Bertolt Brecht, which featured James’s then wife, Tilly Losch, as lead ballerina. A considerable quantity of Les Ballets material survives, including the original manuscript of The Seven Deadly Sins, correspondence, original photographic prints and printed publicity items. James’s broader musical interests are reflected by the presence of original scores by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Igor Markevitch and Vittorio Rieti, as well as a number of his own draft scores.

James corresponded with a number of major literary figures including Aldous Huxley, John Betjeman, Gerald Heard, Dylan Thomas and his close friend, Edith Sitwell. The Huxley correspondence is notable for its discussion of James’s early idea (in 1939) to found an arts and crafts community at West Dean. James’s correspondence with Betjeman and Heard from the early 1960s returns to this topic when it is much closer to fruition. One very unusual literary item is an original manuscript of poems and drawings (c. 1931) by Jean Cocteau, titled 'Cherchez Apollon'. There are also a further eight original Surrealist drawings (1936) by Cocteau in the Cultural Papers.


The Cultural Papers provide deep insights into Edward James’s creative mind, his views on art, literature, history and philosophy, and considerable information about his art-collecting, his life in America and Mexico and experiences in various other countries.  The catalogue has confirmed the highly significant educational and research value of the papers, known from previous use by students and scholars, and their broad international scope, encompassing many different creative arts topics and themes. The catalogue will be launched online in 2021, the year in which West Dean College of Arts and Conservation celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Biographical and early material

Work has moved on to the second section, the Biographical and Personal Papers. The final sorting and arrangement of this section was completed in November 2019. Substantial progress on cataloguing was made until the College was closed under the government’s Covid-19 response measures in March 2020. The first group of papers to be completed was James’s autobiographical writings, a remarkable collection of drafts including fictionalized autobiographies, accounts of his years in California and New Mexico in the early 1940s, and his 1962 article for the Mexican avant-garde magazine, S. NOB. There are a further 50 fragments of personal writing covering his childhood, marriage and friendships, and over 20 published articles about James (the earliest from 1938). 

James’s correspondence with his mother, Evelyn James, begins in childhood (c. 1916) and continues to 1929, the year she died. His letters to her cover his school years (preparatory school, Eton College and Le Rosey, Switzerland) and his time at Christ Church College, Oxford. There is a small quantity of letters exchanged between James and his wife, Tilly Losch, and much material relating to their divorce in 1934, including personal and legal correspondence, legal papers and newspaper clippings. Other material relating to Losch consists of James’s retrospective writing on their marriage and photographic portraits of her.

Work is now progressing on the papers relating to James’s interior design and architectural plans, beginning with the refurbishment of Monkton House and his London property at 35 Wimpole Street in the 1930’s. There is much surviving correspondence and accounts appertaining to this work which was carried out by the decorating firm, Green & Abbott.