The Secret Life of Edward James


From the earliest days of YouTube there were two films about Surrealist art that I’d been hoping would one day be posted somewhere so I could watch them again. One was José Montes-Baquer’s collaboration with Salvador Dalí, Impressions de la Haute Mongolie – Hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976), which eventually turned up at Ubuweb; the other was Patrick Boyle’s The Secret Life of Edward James, a 50-minute documentary about the wealthy poet and Surrealist art patron that was screened once, and once only, on the UK’s ITV network in 1978. Boyle’s film, which was narrated by James’ friend and fellow Surrealism enthusiast, George Melly, was my first introduction to a fascinating figure who was one of the last—if not the last—of the many eccentric aristocrats that these islands have produced. I knew James’ name from Surrealist art books where the Edward James Foundation was credited as the owner of paintings by Magritte and Dalí, but had no idea that James was the model for three of Magritte’s paintings, including La reproduction interdite (1937); or that he’d abandoned his huge ancestral home to create a Surrealist house at nearby Monkton, and had also commenced the construction of a concrete fantasia, Las Pozas, in the heart of the Mexican jungle at Xilitla. Boyle’s film explores all of this in the calm and uncondescending manner that used to be a staple of UK TV documentaries. I’ve been telling people about this film for years, hoping that somebody might have taped it (unlikely in 1978) but no-one ever seemed to have seen it.


In 1986, two years after James’ death, Monkton was up for sale so Central TV sent George Melly and director Patrick Boyle to revisit the place. Monkton, A Surrealist Dream, was the result, a 26-minute documentary which relied heavily on the earlier film to fill out the details of James’ life. The original resurfaced for me again, albeit briefly, in Brighton in 1998. A Surreal Life: Edward James (1907–1984) was an exhibition at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery that featured many works from the James art collection, including major pieces by Leonora Carrington (who appears in Boyle’s film), Dalí, Leonor Fini, Magritte, Picasso, Dorothea Tanning, Pavel Tchelitchew and others. A tape of the 1978 documentary was showing on a TV in one part of the exhibition but the people I was with were reluctant to stand around for an hour so all I got to see was a minute or so of Edward in his jungle paradise. Happily we’re all now able to watch this gem of a film since it was uploaded to YouTube earlier this month (my thanks to James at Strange Flowers for finding it!).


For anyone whose interest is piqued by all of this, two books are worth searching for: Swans Reflecting Elephants, My Early Years (1982) is an autobiography which George Melly compiled from conversations with its subject (and which apparently finished their friendship). James’ propensity for invention means it can’t always be trusted but then that’s the case with many memoirs. A Surreal Life: Edward James (1998) is the 160-page exhibition catalogue which explores James’ life and aesthetic obsessions in a series of copiously-illustrated essays. Both books can be found relatively cheaply via used book dealers.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Las Pozas panoramas
René Magritte by David Wheatley
Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí
Mongolian impressions
Hello Dali!
Return to Las Pozas
Dirty Dalí
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie revisited
Las Pozas and Edward James

8 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Edward James”

  1. Thanks for this useful lead. Melly, James, Magritte, Central Television, Crossroads…brilliant. Do they make them like that anymore? All the best to you and thanks, again.

  2. Hi Rodders. Yes, the 1978 film was an ATV production from the company that gave the world Crossroads. It was broadcast in the evening on ITV even though its subject was, as Melly says, a man that few people have heard of. This wouldn’t be allowed today.

  3. I visited the house in 1986 after Pereds the House agent had placed an advertisment in the Observer. I can recall vividly the magic of the place. There was Magrittes ‘Red Model’ propped casually on the stairs out of it’s frame with a huge dried on mark top left corner. The house had cheap popular prints on the wall (the one with a man sitting on a chessboard & naked woman with overarching swan) which was rather amusing.

  4. Hello,

    I am the uploader of the Edward James film. I actually have a copy of the other film about Monkton specifically, and while it’s essentially a fillet job of the bigger film, I’d be happy to upload it there was interest. Melly is visibly melancholy at the loss of the house.

    All the best,


  5. Hi Duncan. Many thanks for uploading the James doc, it was great to see it again. I already have a rather shaky copy of the Monkton programme but I’m sure other people would want to see it, especially since it shows more of the house. If you do upload it I’ll mention it here.

  6. Marvelous film. Melly’s own surrealist journey, starting with him being taken as a little boy dressed as Mickey Mouse, to parties organised by the Sandon Studios Society, Liverpool’s own bohemian set based at the Bluecoat, is worth investigating. Why, by the way, is Deepinder Cheema’s post accompanied by the Blue Horizon record label logo? I feel some Fleetwood Mac Chicken Shack John Mayall Can’t Fail blues coming on …

  7. Hi Bryan. Melly’s Surrealist interests were explored in an Arena documentary circa 1978. A bit of a silly film but it covers most of the ground. You get to see him reciting Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate and making phonecalls to strangers. There’s also a cameo appearance from The Strangers representing “the punks”.

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