Shipping to
United States
Words by Mr Colin McDowell

The 1930s was a great time to be young, rich and well-born. If you were also British you were an automatic member of the most exclusive sartorial club in the world. Everything in masculine dress was either created or sanctified in less than a square mile of central London known as Mayfair.

Hard to imagine today, but areas such as Kensington and Chelsea were considered hopelessly déclassé by the aristocrats whose London homes were invariably between Berkeley Square and Hyde Park in deepest Belgravia. No one had even heard of either Notting or Primrose Hill.

The denizens of this happy mini planet were inward-looking, often stupid - Sir P G Wodehouse got things pretty well right with Jeeves and Wooster - and really only interested in the pleasures of high society, one of which was taking an almost fetishistic interest in the rules of correct dressing. But there were some who managed to balance the demands of the social and creative worlds of the time, and they were normally tolerated as eccentrics - a type well known and happily accepted in truly aristocratic circles as being more or less normal.

One of the most interesting and eccentric was Mr Edward James, "born mad" as a relative once said. Not surprisingly as his mother, who claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of King Edward VII, went through most of her adult life declaring herself the reincarnation of Ms Marie-Antoinette. Not exactly the ideal mother, she made no attempt to disguise her loathing for her son and the heir to the considerable family fortune, which he inherited at the age of four. Her attitude to her family - Mr James had four older sisters - is caught by her reply to the governess who asked her which child should go for a walk with her: "Whichever goes best with my blue dress".

Portrait of Mr Edward James. René Magritte, Not to be Reproduced, 1937.
Photo Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012

At Oxford it was inevitable that Mr James would gravitate to the effete groups so pilloried by Mr Evelyn Waugh, including Lords Acton and Berners, the first of who obsessed about his appearance endlessly and the second who, if not entirely mad, spent a lifetime giving a very convincing imitation of a man who was. He is the only person on record as having brought a horse into an English drawing room in order to paint its portrait. Mr James was in his element.

After a brief marriage to the Austrian beauty, Ms Tilly Losch, who was a dancer and actor, and an acrimonious divorce in 1934 in which Mr James was "outed" by her (although nobody else in high society had had the faintest doubt of his bisexuality), he became obsessed with surrealism. A friend of Mr Salvador Dalí, whose red Ms Mae West velvet sofa in the shape of her lips Mr James owned, along with a bed based on Lord Nelson's funeral carriage complete with palm tree columns and heavy black draping, he was twice painted by Mr René Magritte and was a close friend of Mr Max Ernst.

A handsome, slim man, he was considered the epitome of the elegant Englishman by the international society of Paris

Strangely, like so many of the surrealists who were often far from Bohemian in attitude or appearance, Mr James showed no eccentricity in his dress, always being seen in Savile Row-perfect suits and evening dress. A handsome, slim man, he was considered the epitome of the elegant Englishman by the international society of Paris, of which he was a prominent member. It was only at the end of his life when he moved to the Mexican jungle and began to build his fantasy house, Las Pozas, that he began to loosen up. He stopped shaving - always a worrying sign in an aristocrat - and soon had a long biblical white beard which apparently terrified the local children, and he slopped around in shapeless linen trousers. The classic Englishman gone to seed, he was even then an archetype, just as he had been in the days when he had dressed with a studied perfection in the style of his day.

It seems unfair today to see Mr James as a madman. He was a collector and protector of artists and intellectuals - he paid for Sir John Betjeman's first book of poetry to be published, encouraged Mr Dylan Thomas and could even call Mr Sigmund Freud a friend. Although diarists point out that he was capricious, paranoid and quarrelsome he was also a generous patron and used his contacts - he was on every guest list of any standing in London, Paris and New York - to further his passionate beliefs. Which is why in his un-emphatic way, Mr James was a trend influencer whose name had resonance wherever he went.