Edward James in Mexico; history, context and legacy at West Dean College

I was lucky enough to be able to attend a free day long symposium about Edward James’ life in Mexico, that took place at West Dean College, 24 Oct 2015. Eight talks and presentations looked at the history, background and influence of Edward James’s time in Mexico City and Las Pozas, the creation he developed with Plutarco Gastelum in Xilitla.

Before I took part in the sculpture workshop in Las Pozas last summer, I didn’t know much about him, so today was an opportunity to put that experience into context. It was a fascinating day, and well worth me getting up at 5:45am to get there!

Publication launched to accompany the symposium organised by the Edward James Research Group at West Dean College

The talks took place in the Old Library and the speakers were a mix of artists, acedemics and professionals. Below are the lecture titles, the speaker’s names and the notes that I made during the symposium with links to any references they made.

Umberto Bellardi Ricci talking at 'Edward James in Mexico' symposium

What we can learn from Edward James:
experimentation in the 21st century

Umberto Bellardi Ricci (Architectural Association)

  • Looked at Edward James’ influence and how we can learn from his attitude of experimentation and collaboration [1].
  • Focused on Modernism and pre-hispanic influences rather than Surrealist; referred to the freedom and space in Mexico to mix ideas, craft, aesthetics and materials.
  • Spoke about appropriation in reference to architecture; for example, Mexico Cathedral is built on the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor and surrounds the original Conquistador church that used stones of the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli, or that the Palacio de Bellas Artes uses pre-hispanic proportions albeit in an art nouveau / art deco building.
  • Talked about sculptures undertaken at an architectural scale directly in response to the landscape [See Espacio Esculptórico, for example]
  • Showed images of Las Pozas workshop 2016 that embraced this idea of collaboration (students were working in groups) to combine modular pieces of work that came together to generate monumental pieces of work.

Ingrid Gonzalez talking at 'Edward James in Mexico' symposium

Photographs of Las Pozas: Edward James’s vision

Ingrid Gonzalez (University of Sussex)

Ingrid showed images and texts from the Edward James archives. Compared and contrasted photographs that were taken at the time of Las Pozas construction (documenting an external, practical reality of production) with texts from Edward James’ letters and journals that recorded an internal reflection of ideas and the project; perhaps creating a mythology of his invented world.

George Charman talking at 'Edward James in Mexico' symposium

Artichoke House

George Charman (artist)

George talked about his project ‘Artichoke House’, a site specific installation at West Dean made in response to an unrealised design conceived by Edward James.

The original drawing of it (by architect Christopher Nicholson in 1936) hangs in the house, and George used time at West Dean during his period of artist-in-residence to formulate plans and build a maquette of his proposed work.

The final installation contains a camera obscura that George included as a way of “reviewing  a surreal proposition as a means of exploring the relationship between object and image”. Taking a drawing to make an object that makes an image.

George Charman's 'The Artichoke' in the grounds of West Dean

He referred to Edward James’ Las Pozas project in terms of philanthropy (providing employment for many Xilitla inhabitants) perhaps how 18C Irish landowners commissioned follys during the potato famine. Also that the creation of such ‘free-association’ type constructions perhaps reflected James’ behaviour as art and idea collector. Lastly, he compared James’ creation of his own world in the jungle, away from his roots as English aristocrat, to JG Ballard’s fiction writing after his relocation from Shanghai to the suburbia of Shepperton [2] .

Mathew Holmes talking at 'Edward James in Mexico' symposium

An overview of Las Pozas

Mathew Holmes (Las Pozas)

Mathew told the story and history of Edward James’ collaboration with Plutarco Gastelum and his family as well as the inhabitants of Xilitla in the creation of Las Pozas.

Using contemporary photographs he explained how the project will be looked after and developed since being designated a National Artistic Monument in 2012, as well as how to maintain the balance between preservation and tourism.

He also described the process of restoration of the construction, ‘Cinematografo’, using complex and high-tech approaches to concrete.

Polyhedra and the architecture of Edward James

Dr. David Stent (West Dean)

David talked about a dream that the 16 year old Edward James had of an ‘8-sided perfumed tower’ and speculated on the significance of geometry and polyhedra in James’ (mainly unrealised) architectural projects.

During the talk, he referred to Piranesi’s etching (specifically, Carceri Plate VII – The Drawbridge), Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Idéal, Giacometti’s The Cube, Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream or The Dream of Poliphilus) and Lorenz Stoer’s geometric prints.

Reproduction of the 'footprints' carpet at West Dean

Footprints to Mexico

Conservation of Books and Library Materials dept. (West Dean)

  • They spoke about the idea that Edward James’s Las Pozas was a way of permanently memorialising his orchid collection (18,000 of which were ruined in 3 days of frost in 1962).
  • They related his interest in memories to the creation of the ‘footprints carpet’, commissioned by James for his then wife, Tilly Losch, inspired by the footprints she’d left on the floor as she got out of the bath. Mentioned that this carpet had been re-commissioned after his split with Tilly, replacing human footprints with that of a dog.
  • Described the process that the Conservation of Books and Library Materials department at West Dean had undertaken, to restore and conserve the designs produced by Wilton for the carpet.

Dr. Joanna Pawlik talking at 'Edward James in Mexico' symposium

From snob to S.NOB: Edward James turns fifty in Mexico

Dr Joanna Pawlik (University of Sussex)

Joanna explored Edward James’ contribution – literary and financial – to Mexican Surrealist magazine S.NOB, that ran for 7 issues between June and October 1962.

  • She talked about James’ Cuando cumple cincuenta años – an account of his experience of hallucinogenic drugs on his fiftieth birthday in a Mexican hotel – a heavily edited version of which appeared in the final issue of S.NOB.
  • Discussed the positioning of this article which came directly after a piece about Antonin Artaud, and uses this to talk about James’ involvement with transnational Surrealism.
  • Spoke of James’ connection to the photographer for that article, Kati Horna, and contributor to the magazine with text and image, Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington who, like James, had relocated to Mexico.

Francesco Manacorda and Joanna Moorhead in conversation at 'Edward James in Mexico' symposium

In conversation

Francesco Manacorda (Tate Liverpool) and Joanna Moorhead (Journalist & Author)

Joanna Moorhead is Leonora Carrington’s cousin and became close to her towards the end of her life despite Carrington being estranged for the rest of her English family. Moorhead co-curated ‘Surreal Friends’ at The Pallant House Gallery, an exhibition on the work of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna.

She talked about  Carrington’s relocation to Mexico, her art and her close relationship to James, reading letters written between them, with Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director at Tate Liverpool, which recently staged an exhibition of Leonora Carrington’s work.

They discussed whether Carrington and James’ closeness may come from a shared experience of mental crises [3], or perhaps the alienation they both felt as the only sibling in a family of boys (Carrington) or girls (James) and related James’ creation of Las Pozas with  Carrington and Max Ernst’s design of their house of Saint Martin d’Ardeche.

Photos of the exterior and interior of West Dean College that I took in between talks…
Exterior of West Dean College

Stained glass window featuring Edward James and parrots. Underneath is the word 'poeta' (not visible in this overexposed picture)

Edward James collaborated with Salvador Dalí a number of times; they produced these ‘Mae West’ lip sofas (1936-38) which are now in the Purple Gallery at West Dean.

Cover for one of 5 Salvador Dali / Edward James 'Lips Sofas' at West Dean

I can’t help but think of the constructions at Las Pozas when I see this plaster lamp; designed by Serge Roche, this Palm Tocheres stood in James’ bedroom at Monkton House, a Lutyens dower house on his family’s West Dean estate.


[1] Ends and Means, 1937,  Aldous Huxley
2] The Unlimited Dream Company, 1979, JG Ballard
3 ] Down Below, 1944, Leonora Carrington

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