Oral History Project - Memories of Edward James

Some five years ago, West Dean College of Arts and Conservation took the decision to embark on a project to make recordings of memories of our founder Edward James - conscious that people who had known him were no longer youngsters.  We were fortunate enough to secure the services of a British Library trained Oral Historian, Jackie Herrington, who has captured just under 30 hours of recordings from 24 different individuals who knew Edward James during his lifetime, and there are more individuals to be interviewed.  The majority of the recordings have been made in West Dean House, the Grade II* Listed building in which Edward James grew up and which is now home to West Dean College.

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"Interviewees have been drawn from all walks of life: from members of Edward’s family; from his personal domestic staff; from gardeners, forestry workers, farm staff and building staff on West Dean Estate; from families renting homes on West Dean Estate; from staff and students from the early days of West Dean College.

Each recording has provided a picture of Edward James from a uniquely personal perspective, and there are undoubtedly more uniquely personal perspectives waiting to be recorded. Whilst each and every recording contains information recounted by no other interviewee, some common themes have emerged: Edward James’s love of plants, particularly trees; his love of animals, particularly dogs; his love of birds. He also had a particular affinity with children, joining in their games, watching and roundly applauding performances put on especially for his entertainment, and conspiring with them against ‘the grown ups’.

We also learn that he did not enjoy dressing up in formal clothes and was particularly unhappy if obliged to wear shoes and socks, preferring to wander about at home in a dressing gown, or a poncho in Mexico, or nothing at all. He travelled frequently and widely and was as happy sleeping in a barn as in an expensive hotel. The routine on arrival and departure was, however, the same regardless of his lodgings for the night; each individual item was removed from its suitcase, its protective layers of tissue paper unwrapped, and its position for the night determined. In the morning, each item was rewrapped in tissue paper and replaced in its suitcase. Edward James was fastidious about hygiene, a taker of long baths and a user of copious quantities of paper handkerchiefs.  He nevertheless thought nothing of encouraging birds to take food from his mouth.

Edward James was a copious letter writer and had large, sprawling handwriting: more than one interviewee has spoken of multi-coloured personal postcards and letters received from him, the body of the letter encircled with afterthoughts and errors blocked out with correcting fluid ‘clouds’; envelopes were often similarly embellished.

The College’s decision was timely, several of the interviewees having passed away since recording their memories.  The richness of the oral history interviews to date has led the College to take the further decision to equip itself to undertake further interviewees in-house and to broaden the brief to include memories of the development of West Dean College and the wider West Dean Estate."

Jackie Herrington, Oral History Coordinator November 2019

The Edward James Archive

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 of Arts and Conservation 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.