August 16, 1907– Edward James
Nestled between mountains in the deepest, darkest, dense lush heart of Mexico’s Huasteca Potosina area is the tiny town of Xilitla, meaning “the place of snails” in the ancient Aztec language. It is the home of the fantastic estate, Las Pozas, a magical man-made place 2,000 feet above sea level with 80 acres of rain forest, waterfalls, and natural freshwater pools (pozas means “pools” in Spanish) where there are reinforced-concrete bamboo shafts, petrified cascades, massive petaled columns, giant flowers, Gothic arches, dramatic gates, pavilions with undetermined levels, and stairways to heaven to be found.
In the late 1940s, an eccentric British multi-millionaire and Surrealist Art collector, Edward James, left his family’s 300-room stately mansion in Sussex for Taos before settling in the Huasteca Potosina region. James was searching for his own personal paradise. He had first fancied farming rare orchids on his site, but by the early 1960s, after a freak frost destroyed most of his rare flowers, James chose a less fragile form of beauty.
James and his Mexican boyfriend, Plutarco Gastélum, a handsome young manager of the telegraph office in Cuernavaca, were exploring the Huasteca Potosina when they were surrounded by a cloud of butterflies while they were bathing together in a stream. James interpreted this event as a magical sign. So, in 1947, he began the construction of his vision.
Employing more than 100 laborers, he spent the next two decades transforming this very remote jungle location (the nearest airport is over three hours away) into a sensual Surrealist folly, funding the construction by selling off his world-class collection of paintings: Carringtons, Dalís, and Magrittes.
Surrealism, whose sources of creation are found in the dreams and the subconscious, has rarely been used to build things in real life. James, described by Salvador Dalí as: “crazier than all the Surrealists together”, designed a place that defies any architectural label and gives a glimpse of something between fantasy and reality.
James used locally sourced raw materials of wax, clay, gravel, wood, and natural dyes to form a crazy world of purposeful ruins, surrounded by exotic birds, monkeys, anteaters, and armadillos. He experimented with formwork, casting techniques, and organic aggregates. James used an ancient tradition of monumental, geometric abstractionism and a pre-Hispanic aesthetic with a nod to Mexican Modernist architecture for his weird, wonderful world.
I first encountered Las Pozas in a feature in my favorite magazine, World Of Interiors, in the 1980s and I have never shaken-off those images or James’ story.
Edward Frank Willis James was born in Greywalls, Scotland. His wealthy father, William James, was an American railroad magnate and his mother was the equally rich Elisabeth Evelyn Forbes. The couple were friends with the richest and most famous people of their era. In fact, Edward James’ name was given in honor of British King Edward VII, who was a frequent guest at West Dean, the home of the James family. It was rumored that baby Edward not only inherited the name of the King but was his son.
In 1930, James married an Australian dancer/choreographer/actor/painter, Tilly Losch. James designed sets and costumes for her productions, including Les Ballets (1933), in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, actor Lotte Lenya and choreographer George Balanchine. In 1934, James was divorced by his wife who accused him of adultery after he had a string of affairs with dudes.
During his life James sponsored several artists and writers. He funded the first book of poems by John Betjeman and he gave Dalí his first important exhibition in 1938 at a London gallery. He helped Dalí move into the art market by purchasing many works and by supporting him financially for two years. They also collaborated on two of the most enduring icons of the Surrealist Movement: The Lobster Telephone and The Mae West Lips Sofa.
James also was a patron of artist René Magritte, allowing Magritte to stay rent free in his London flat and paint. James is featured in two of Magritte’s works, Le Principe du Plaisir and La Reproduction Interdite.
In 1937, when Magritte visited James in London, he painted a vertical version of his 1929 canvas On the Threshold of Liberty to install in the stairwell; he also photographed his host and patron in front of the painting. The photographic description is so close to the painter’s realistic style, and James is so close to the painting, that he seems to stand on the threshold-evidently unaware that the potential liberty before him is threatened by the heavy artillery at his side.
James published Minotaure, a French magazine dedicated to Surrealism. He had Monkton House on his property at West Dean constructed in a surrealist style. It was made in collaboration with famed decorator Syrie Maugham, ex-wife of gay writer W. Somerset Maugham, one of his many male lovers. How surreal is that?
In 1940, James moved to Taos, as the guest of American Arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, where he was noted for his entertaining, eccentric, effeminate behavior.
After Taos, James traveled to Los Angeles where, in that city of dreams, he came upon the notion to build a “Garden Of Eden”, but instead, he decided to try Mexico, a more romantic and cheaper place than Southern California.
After that freak frost destroyed Gastélum and James’s orchid plantation (locals thought the frost was volcanic ash), the men began their construction of the 36 surreal buildings, with no utilitarian purpose, that were fully integrated to the naturalness of the place filled with lush native plants, waterfalls and natural pools.
The English eccentric and his hombre filled their property with fantastical structures: totem poles, hidden rooms, teetering towers, and those crazy staircases leading to nowhere. James gave them baffling names like House With Three Stories That Could Be Five and Temple Of The Ducks. James instructed the hundreds of artisans who’d worked for him over the years to leave them unfinished, leaving the workers mystified. A 1978 British television documentary showed James strolling beatifically around his domain: wearing a caftan, with an unkempt white beard, and green parrots perched on his shoulders. The Secret Life Of Edward James, directed by George Melly is available on YouTube.
James left this world in 1984. He had already sold-off his considerable art collection and the properties in England. Las Pozas was then cared for by Gastélum, who had been a part of the dream for 40 years. He had married a local woman and they had four children, who had called James: “Uncle Eduardo”. James eventually adopted the kids, but his will did not provide for the upkeep and continuation of Las Pozas, and Gastélum could not afford to maintain it. The carefully cultivated plants died, the animals were released back into the rainforest, and the structures were soon overgrown with tropical foliage. No one was keeping it surreal.
A few dedicated fans of Surrealism would still make the tortuous trek through the mountains to Las Pozas, but the tales of the follies built by an eccentric multimillionaire in the beautiful remote place seemed more and more apocryphal.
Finally, in 2007, the estate was acquired by Fondo Xilitla, a charitable foundation formed to carefully restore James’s enchanted spot. Since then, what James called his Surrealist Xanadu has fianally become slightly more accessible. You can visit, but it remains remote. You have to fly to Tampico, via Mexico City. From Tampico, take the bus to enchanting San Miguel de Allende and hire a driver to take you to Xilitla, a rough 6-8 hour drive. I hear it is worth it.