West Dean West Sussex and New Mexico…what do they have in common?

Answer: Edward James but who was he?

The endowment of the West Dean estate by it’s eventual and innovative heir and philanthropist continues to benefit the wider public, with the house forming the basis for a wide range of residential art, design and craft courses.

The Edward James Foundation continues to foster and encourage the development of all forms of art and craft to the current day. It is a vast and beautiful environment, affording guests, attending their course, the opportunity to not only revel in their course but sample what it is like to live and stay in a large country house set in an inspiring landscape. But it is so much more than that and so was Edward James…

Edward was just 4 years old when his father died , he did not fully inherit until he was 25.  Educated briefly at Eton, Le Rosey Switzerland, then at Christs Church Oxford. He was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. He was an early sponsor and friend of John Betjemin. He launched his own press and publishing firm to promote the works of his friends and favoured writers.

Forging an early and deep connection with the arts it was to Aldous Huxley in 1939 that he expressed his concern that after the war, with all that was likely to endure that certain arts and in particular crafts would be lost to the nation (the UK.) It was for this reason that he set-up an educational community for the arts and crafts at West Dean.

Edward James was a passionate supporter of surrealism and in particular Salvador Dali and orginal works can still be enjoyed in the house, including original photographs of it’s famous house guests by Cecil Beton, the house is steeped in cultural connections, as a living inspiration for everyone attending to enjoy.

In addition to his life’s investment and more than generous endowment to the estate James indulged on another massive project in New Mexico…hence the connection.  Las Posas was built a 7 hour drive north of Mexico City in the early 1940’s James spending time in Los Angeles and decided he wanted to set-up his own Garden of Eden. This indulgence was  promoted and encouraged by his cousin and friend the painter Bridget Bate Tichenor and hence the surreal project and connection to New Mexico began. Hiring Plutarco Gastelum as a guide they discovered Xiltla in 1945. They created a mock Gothic cement castle in this obscure and remote location, which became a hotel La Posada El Castillo. For nearly 40 years James built strange and surreal structure there like ‘House with a Roof like a Whale’ and the ‘Staircase to Heaven’,  surrounded by exotic plantings, animals and plants abounded. To pay for his modern day folly James sold much of his Surrealist Art collection at auction.

Following his death the site fell into dis-repair and lack of funds but in 2007 the Cemex company and Mexican government invested to preserve the site and create a foundation to ensure it’s preservation.

When you visit the house you can’t help but be in awe of the grand environment and depth of cultural investment that has been made out of his generous donation to the foundation. It was also through his generosity that the nearby Weald and Downland Open Air Museum found it’s original land and became established.

Whilst Edward may have left no heirs, he certainly left a legacy to the wealth and achievements his father ha da ccrued and redistributed them back to make a hugely worthwhile contribution to botht eh ongoing preservation of art and crafts in the UK.

Consider a visit , you can enjoy the grounds and gardens without attending the college courses themselves, but if you have an interest in the arts, find an excuse and sign-up for a course, it is one of the best experiences and most inspriing environs you could possibly ask for.


Timeline of West Dean:

  • 1066 West has a long history with the first known documented reference being an entry in the Doomsday Book
  • 1738 the Estate became the property of the Peachey Family in 1738.
    • It was Sir James Peachey the first Lord of Selsey who commissioned architect James Wyatt to design and then build the current flint mansion as it still stands. He was Groom of the Bedchamber and Master of the Robes to King George III for his sins.
    • It was during this time that the estate was expanded and the Arbortorium was established.
    •  All of the final line of Peachey children were without heirs, so in 1871 sadly the last Peachey died.
  • 1892  West Dean House was acquired by William Dodge James newly married  he was a wealthy land owner with money from American industries and railways.
    • His wife was  Evelyn Forbes the daughter of Sir Charles Forbes, a Scottish aristocrat.
    • William commissioned Ernest Gerge and Harold Peto extend the house and Peto also established the dramatic 300ft Pergola that still features in the garden’s design as you approach the house.
    • Edward VII was a regular house guest and gun on the estate shoots
    • William and Evelyn had four girls, Millicent, Alexandra, Silvia and Audrey.
  • 1907 In 1907, after 18 years of marriage, their son and heir Edward James was born. This was to be a very significant event for the future of the estate. There are unproven rumours that Edward James was actuall the love child of Henry VII and his mother Evelyn but these were ‘rumours.’
  • 1912: William Dodge James died and Edward at 4, becomes the heir apparent, taking full control when he reached 25 years of age.
  • 1930s  James married Tilly Losch an Austrian dancer choreographer, actress and painter, there was some question about the basis of their relationship and they had no children.
  • 1964 establishes charitable trust for the House and basis of the foundation, he had no heirs
  • 1971  the foundation established the West Dean College for both full-time and short courses in arts and crafts
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