The Edward James Foundation
Fireworks, brass bands, and a procession of two hundred torch bearers, heralded the arrival of Edward James (1907-1984), the youngest child and only son of William James, and his wife, Evelyn. Edward James’s father was a wealthy English landowner of American descent whose fortune was derived primarily from America, his mother was the daughter of Sir Charles Forbes, a Scottish aristocrat.
William James purchased West Dean Estate in 1891 and it is one of the largest flint structures in the country. The manor house is a beautiful, building, clothed in knapped Norfolk flint and crowned by a castellated tiara of natural stone. Originally built in 1622 by John Lewknor on a site previously occupied by a medieval building, it was remodelled in 1805 by James Wyatt for Sir James Peachey, first Baron Selsey, and further altered and extended in 1892 under the direction of James’s father. Part of the old manor house can still be seen on the north front where, at the western end, there are two windows set in old flint work.
At the death of William James in 1912 when Edward was only four, Edward James inherited his father’s estate, its furnishings and effects, and the residue of his father’s property, all of which was held in trust until he reached the age of 25. The estate, consisting of the manor house, and approximately 12,000 acres of land, including four villages, was let by his trustees.
Edward James was a life-long patron of the arts and supported young painters, composers, and writers. He joined the committee called La Serenade formed to promote new musical works and was concerned to aid those young composers who had not yet met with recognition or needed financial backing in order to reach a larger public. In 1933 Edward James financed the presentation of a season of ballet in Paris with Georges Balanchine as choreographer. The ballet was rapturously received, first in Paris, then at the London Savoy.
Perhaps one of the things for which Edward James is best remembered, is for his patronage of painters, and throughout Edward’s life, he supported many young artists such as Salvador Dalí, Rene Magritte, and Pavel Tchelitchew, buying their work, which was then, unfashionable. In this way, he unintentionally amassed what has come to be accepted as one of the finest collections of surrealist art in Europe. A few of these paintings still remain at West Dean, although the majority of his surrealist collection has been dispersed.
Wherever Edward was, and no matter what exciting adventure he was embarking on, he had one desire, one love, from which he ever wavered, and that was to preserve his estate intact. In 1964, Edward James conveyed his family mansion, art collection and estate, to The Edward James Foundation, a charitable educational trust established on the preservation of his estate and his lifelong love of the arts. The creation of such a trust averted the fragmentation that death duties would have dictated and allowed the materialization of Edward James’s vision: creating a community where the estate supports a college dedicated to the arts and crafts. In 1971, Edward James’s vision became a reality when the gates of his family estate were opened under the auspices of the West Dean College of Arts and Craft, now an internationally acclaimed centre for making, conservation and the visual arts through its MAs and Diploma programmes and the 700+ short courses run each year.
The Trustees have taken great care to restore the house to the highest possible standards, an ethos which still permeates every activity of the Foundation.