Edward James was born in 1907 and was an Oxford contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. A patron of the arts, poet, and designer, he is known as an ardent Surrealist. In collaboration with Salvador Dalí, James created iconic works like the Mae West Lips Sofa and the Lobster Telephone (also known as the Aphrodisiac Telephone).
One of four known copies of the Telephone can be viewed at James’ estate at West Dean, now a National Trust site. The site is known for its nineteenth-century Gothic house designed by James Wyatt and a twentieth-century Arts and Crafts garden.
René Magritte painted two portraits of James, both expressing a mysterious or unknowable quality about him.
James married Tilly Losch, an Austrian dancer, in the early 1930s, and produced Les Ballets 1933, which included Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, and George Balanchine, as a vehicle for her. In 1934, in a divorce countersuit, Tilly accused him of homosexuality. In 1940, James stayed for a period at the Taos, New Mexico ranch of bisexual Mabel Dodge Luhan, which housed a revolving guest lists of avant-garde artists. Travels in Mexico convinced him that in order to design the “true Garden of Eden” he had in mind, “Mexico was far more romantic” a location than either Britain or the United States. In 1945, guided by a young telegraph operator named Plutarco Gastelum whom he had hired in Cuernavaca, James found the location of the garden he was to name Las Pozas (“the pools”) at Xilitla. This is the James garden I nominate “queer,” if only for its Surrealist vibe of sexual freakiness and its origins in a collaboration between men.
Gustelem, his wife and children lived with James at Laz Pozas for the next forty years. Gustelem and James collaborated on nearly forty concrete follies (garden buildings including temples, pagodas and summerhouses) with names like The House on Three Floors Which Will In Fact Have Five or Four or Six. Plantings included an orchid collection that at one time numbered 29,000 specimens, and “casas” or animal houses housed wild birds and animals from all over the world.
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
of trees my only gloom - and the sound, the sound of green.
Here amid the warmth of the rain, what might have been
is resolved into the tenderness of a tall doom
who says: 'You did your best, rest' - and after you the bloom
of what you loved and planted still will whisper what you mean.
And the ghosts of the birds I loved, will attend me each a friend;
like them shall I have flown beyond the realm of words.
You, through the trees, shall hear them, long after the end
calling me beyond the river. For the cries of birds
continue, as - defended by the cortege of their wings -
my soul among strange silences yet sings.
Here's James at Las Pozas in the 1980s:
Thanks to Roberto Tejada for introducing me to Las Pozas. Now run by a foundation, the garden is open to visitors. I’m adding it to my list of lifetime garden tourism/research destinations. I’ll be able to visit West Dean this summer when I’m in England and will be sure to report any features that set off my garden-writer gaydar.