January 24, 2014

The Surreal Passion of Sir Edward James

2013-11-16 13.48.24

Finding a surreal sculpture garden amidst a rain forest in Northeastern Mexico is as unbelievable as the story behind Sir Edward James (1907-1984). James was a legendary man, and an immensely rich poet – as described by Salvador Dali – who discovered the romance of Mexico in 1947 when he acquired a coffee plantation near Xilitla, Mexico.

By age 25, James had inherited an immense fortune from his American merchant father who married a Scots socialite believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Edward VII. At age 5, James inherited West Dean House in Sussex; an 8,000-acre estate which, in 1964, became the West Dean College.

Sir Edward James

James, who has been referred to as the last of the great eccentrics, was a talented poet and an avid collector of early surrealist art. Growing up as an aristocrat, James was not allowed to run free in the family’s estate; something that triggered the young child’s imagination into inventing a surreal and imaginary world of his own. Thus began his passion for surrealism, and his sponsorship of then unknown but talented artists such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Leonora Carrington and Pablo Picasso among several others. James was picky, for he believed bad artists should never be encouraged.

A turbulent marriage, and a well-publicized divorce which alienated his friends, left James disillusioned and disappointed. Submerged in loneliness, and without knowing it, James began his semi-permanent exile in search of his Shangri La.  His first stop was New York City where he managed Dalí’s exhibit during the World’s Fair. He eventually bought a house in Malibu, California and lived the high life of American society. This would not last, for James grew tired of the hypocrisy of it all, and headed to Mexico encouraged by some friends.

James met and hired Plutarco Gastelum in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and a friendship and partnership grew that eventually led to James adopting Gastelum’s family. Both discovered the town of Xilitla amidst a subtropical rain forest 2,000 feet high in the “Huasteca” Mountains of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. In 1947, James purchased a nearby 20-acre coffee plantation called Las Pozas – the pools – which he registered under Gastelum’s name. Las Pozas became James’ Xanadu where he bathed in its blue-turquoise waterfall, and the place where he cultivated orchids and housed exotic animals such as cockatoos, parrots, boas and ocelots. It is said that over 29,000 orchids were there at one time.

A turning point came in the form of an unprecedented frost in 1962 when most orchids were destroyed. The unfortunate event stirred James’ surrealist imagination to conceive an amazing sculpture garden that still enchants people’s imagination today. For 20 years, and at a cost of over 5 million dollars, James designed structures inspired by the garden’s natural surroundings. For this challenging endeavor, James employed hundreds of masons, artisans and local craftsmen to build sculptures that resembled orchids, leaves, and birds set among trails, steps and ramps with bridges and winding pathways that lead nowhere.

The most unique characteristic of this surreal garden is that no building was ever finished, for James believed in an Arabic proverb that said to never finish building your house. During a documentary titled The Secret Life of Edward James (1978), by George Melly, James stated the reason why his structures were never finished was because he would have them started just so he would not forget to finish them. He knew it would take his whole life and more to finish this project, or that it would never be finished at all.   The “Bamboo Palace” is a three-story structure with walls resembling bamboo shoots, the “Stairway to the Sky” features soaring narrow  staircases, and the outdoor aviary known as the  “Homage to Max Ernst” are among the garden’s most important structures.

Sculpture garden

By the time of James’ death in 1984, he had built 36 structures. After his passing, the Gastelum family managed Las Pozas until 2007 when the Pedro and Elena Hernandez foundation, the government of the State of San Luis Potosi, and CEMEX; a worldwide Mexican cement company purchased the property. Today Las Pozas is open to the public every day of the year, and 1 ½ hour guided tours both in English and Spanish are available for about 20 dollars per person.

The good news for residents of the Rio Grande Valley, is that Aeromar Airlines is now operating non-stop flights to San Luis Potosi from the McAllen International Airport three times a week. The new modern super highway connecting the Huasteca region to San Luis Potosi’s International Airport allows  travelers to reach Ciudad Valles in less than four hours. From Ciudad Valles one can plan multiple outdoor excursions in the Huasteca Mountains of San Luis Potosi. There are a couple of B&B in Xilitla including La Posada El Castillo – Sir Edward James original home – and Hostal del Café.  For more information:

This article was published in Beyond Arts magazine December 2013 issue.

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About the Author

Nydia O
A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.-Maya Angelou. La Vida Valle is where I write about "la vida" my life in the Rio Grande Valley. From this bi-cultural corner on the tip of Texas, I share my poems and my spiritual and travel experiences. I also blog about the arts, nature and my passion for historic preservation and architecture. But most importantly, let's talk about "la vida" - living our lives - in a vacation state of mind. Contributions and comments are always welcome .


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