ABC: Cataloguing the Edward James Archive

Progress on the cataloguing of the Cultural Papers, the most important component of the Edward James Archive, has reached a key stage with the completion of work on the Leonora Carrington material. This is the largest group of papers catalogued so far in the alphabetically-arranged sequence and it principally consists of her correspondence (often irregular) with Edward James from 1946 to 1981, with a number of her original drawings (some for tapestries commissioned by James) and a sketchbook. The letters bring to life a complex, and sometimes intense, friendship which began soon after their meeting in Mexico in the mid-1940s. Carrington discusses her artworks in progress, the sales and planned exhibitions of her paintings, her home life and connections in Mexico City, and her vexations concerning her estranged family in England. James's letters to her are more numerous: he typically kept drafts or copies of most outgoing letters, some of which were very long and required several drafts. He relates news of his travels, especially in Central and South America, describes the development of his ranch at Las Pozas, delves into Mexican history and myth, discusses various art topics, and pours out his problems - ranging over his emotional life, financial affairs, treacherous associates, the non-publication of his poetry and many other issues. In draft articles that he contributed to two of Carrington's exhibitions, he lavishes praise on her talents and the 'poetic' qualities that she brought to her art.

Other notable catalogued material relating to artists includes James's extensive correspondence (1937-1968) with Dorothy Brett, who had moved from England to the USA to join D.H. Lawrence's 'artist's colony' in Taos, New Mexico. Included are some 50 letters from Brett in which she discusses her artistic ideas, alludes to relations within the Taos community and touches on spiritual matters. She also delighted James with her positive responses to his poems that he sent. Letters from the Russian surrealist painter Eugène Berman date from 1937 to 1949 and are accompanied by nine of his original drawings. Several of these feature fragmented architectural forms, ideas that may have influenced James's later creations at Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico.

Also catalogued is a significant group of literature-related material: James's correspondence with John Betjeman, with several of Betjeman's autograph draft poems for his first published collection, Mount Zion. This volume was published by James's own imprint, The James Press, in 1931 and West Dean College also holds a bound proof copy of the work. A few letters date from the 1930s and the later correspondence is dominated by eccentric and often unsent letters by James, some very long. Among the topics covered is his plan to convert West Dean into a charitable foundation and college.

In his correspondence (1937-1938) with the designer, Edward Carrick, we read of James's specifications and requested alterations for the Mae West Lips Sofa and also find some small sketches of the sofa on the back of an envelope. James's art purchasing activities are strongly represented in several series of correspondence, including those of Carrington, Brett and the American artist, Carlyle Brown: references to particular paintings that he bought (often with prices) are common. The Carlyle Brown correspondence illuminates another of James's 'artistic' friendships and also documents the recriminations following Brown's troubled six-month stay at West Dean in 1948. A very different group of correspondence (1947-1948) with the French politician and lawyer, Gaston Bergery, throws some light on James's attempts to recover some of his Salvador Dalí paintings which were looted from Paris by the Nazis.

The cataloguing work so far has confirmed previous impressions of the Cultural Papers' rich arts-related content, diverse subject areas and unique biographical interest. Perhaps the most aesthetically striking item to be documented so far is the bound manuscript of André Breton's essay, Le Château étoilé, compiled in 1936 in green ink on light blue paper. Inscribed 'A Edward James son ami André Breton', it includes eight photographic frottages by another major surrealist figure, Max Ernst. The essay and frottages were published in the surrealist journal Minotaure #8 (also held in the Cultural Papers) in 1936. It is thought that James acquired this unique item as he was co-editing and financing Minotaure at this time. An item such as this, with its unusual provenance, again illustrates the breadth of James's web of cultural associations.

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Edward James to Leonora Carrington, September 1946. © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation.

The Edward James Archive is currently closed for external research requests. This is due to the cataloguing project outlined above.

If you have an urgent archive request please email the Archives team at archives@westdean.org.uk with the subject header to include - For the attention of the Director of Education, Francine Norris.

The completion of the cataloguing project will improve the search ability of the Edward James Archive and, in due course, enable researchers to have greater access to it. This significant development will benefit both students at West Dean College and the wider national and international research community. We appreciate your patience for the duration of this cataloguing project and please keep updated on progress via our blog page.