Celebrating the poetry works of Edward James

Edward James is perhaps best known as a major patron of the arts and an innovator in interior design and architecture. Yet he regarded himself primarily as a poet and, for World Poetry Day, we’re shining a spotlight on James’ lifelong pursuit of poetry. 

After a classical education at Eton School, from 1926 to 1928 James attended Christ Church College, Oxford, where in his first year he published his first book of poems, simply titled Poems

James’ determination to publish poetry led him, in 1930, to establish The James Press. The Press’s first venture saw the publication of his friend, John Betjeman’s, first poetry collection, Mount Zion, in 1931.  Betjeman’s handwritten drafts of the Mount Zion poems remain in the Edward James Archive, held at West Dean College. Throughout the 1930s the Press issued a steady stream of James’ own books of poetry, while he also wrote a few experimental novels.  

The books produced by the James Press were often elaborately decorated with illustrations provided by leading artists such as Rex Whistler, Pavel Tchelitchew, Oliver Messel and Edward Carrick. James also experimented with typography which must have challenged his printers. Two examples of his typographical experimentation are shown here. 

James’ poetry volumes were issued by The James Press in small print runs but, in 1938, his collection, The Bones of My Hand, was published by Oxford University Press. The book received a scathing review in The New Statesman by Stephen Spender who hinted that James was merely a wealthy dilettante rather than a serious poet. The review had a long-lasting impact on James, as decades later, he continued to reference the comments in letters to friends.  

James continued to write poetry throughout his life and was influenced by the various countries he lived in or visited, including Italy, Mexico and the USA (particularly California). The themes and subjects of his poetry include love (often unrequited), close friends, nature, Greek mythology, Mexican folklore, as well as fantasy stories in verse. He admitted that his poetry, especially in the 1930s, was a throwback to the unfashionable nineteenth-century Romantic tradition, making it of little interest to poetry editors.   

As well as Betjeman, Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas and André Breton were just a few of the poets associated with James. Some close friends, such as Sitwell, became sources of advice for James on poetry and publication matters, and this is seen in correspondence in the Edward James Archive. 

As well as almost a complete set of James’ published books, the College also holds his vast accumulation of draft poetry, novels and other writing. Many drafts were unpublished and some were unfinished. Work on the sorting and arrangement of these literary papers is ongoing, enabling them to be fully catalogued as part of the ongoing project to catalogue the entire Edward James Archive. The catalogue will be published online with many digital images of the original material included. 

Students are invited to study the collection of published poetry books by Edward James from the West Dean College library. 

Poetry continues to be celebrated and the legacy of James lives on at West Dean, through the MA Creative Writing and Publishing programme, and various fiction writing and poetry short courses running each year.