Art: Classics from the James gang

Sussex is the place for Surrealism. Andrew Lambirth visits two exhibitions featuring treasures taken from some extraordinary private collections

Edward James was a minor poet but a major patron, a wilful would- be artist of vast inherited wealth, whose extravagances included building a bizarrely coloured concrete city in the Mexican jungle. Born in 1907 and rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Edward VII, who was his actual godfather, James counter-claimed that it was really his mother who enjoyed royal parentage. Whatever the truth, he was the pampered scion of American timber money, and,arriving for the first time at the family estate of West Dean, in Sussex, he was greeted by local worthies, brass bands and a procession of 200 torchbearers. After that kind of childhood, it would be difficult to lead a normal life.

James triumphantly didn't. A new exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery celebrates his life (he died in 1984) by reuniting many of the paintings and treasures he chose to surround himself with, and offers a taste of the extraordinary existence he made his normal routine.

Brighton Museum has a number of Edward James items in its permanent collection, and this exhibition - its largest, most elaborate and most impressive for some years - begins in the downstairs galleries. A trail of puce footprints leads from the front door into the permanent displays, linking up an eight- branch gilt candle-holder (of no real distinction) designed by James with the set designs and costumes for the ballets that he payrolled in 1933. These include a couple of intriguing body masks by Derain as well as other costumes by him. Follow the footprint trail upstairs into the temporary exhibition space, and the first picture to greet you is Magritte's portrait of James. As a portrait it's very unusual, principally because it's a backview. All we see is the back of James's head. Even though he is shown reflected in a mirror, his reflection is also a back view. A typical Magritte conundrum, and perhaps also something, of a comment on James himself.

Magritte is well represented in the show, all the more impressive since most Magritte paintings have been gathered in Brussels this spring for an exhibition to mark his centenary. James commissioned Magritte to come to England and paint specific pictures for him, much as he was to employ Dali. James liked to think of himself as an artistic collaborator rather than as a straightforward collector. He was in truth an enabler, who for a period of one year (June 1937-June 1938) paid Dali an income so that he could work undisturbed.

The naked footprints are those of the dancer Tilly Losch, to whom James was unsuccessfully married. One of the things he dreamed up to please her was a staircarpet woven with her footprints, leading to a beautiful bathroom in different hues of smoked glass and chrome designed by Paul Nash. This is now known only from photographs, and much of the exhibition consists of such photographic documentation and other archive material. James was snapped by Beaton many times, by Madame Yevonde and by Norman Parkinson. But not, apparently by Angus McBean, although they shared a passion for trick effects. A comer of the Brighton installation recreates the so-called "Tent Room" of James's London house in Wimpole Street and is all coloured columns and billowing drapes, here almost obscuring a portrait of the composer Igor Markevitch by the equally obscure Pavel Tchelitchew. In a photograph from the late Thirties of the actual room, it is a major Picasso painting which is nearly hidden by the drapes, thus neatly refuting the assertion that James only collected minor art.

In fact, the centrepiece of the exhibition is a room filled with work of very high quality indeed. Besides sketchbooks, by Dali and Leonora Carrington among others, there are several major paintings by Paul Nash, including his Harbour and Room, borrowed back from the Tate. A whole clutch of Magrittes features a plaster head painted with blue sky and clouds called The Future of Statues and the large and impressive road painting La Jeunesse Illustree.

For anyone even remotely interested in Dali, this is an exhibition not to be missed. Besides such classics as the Metamorphosis of Narcissus, again from the Tate, there are the shaped panels of Couple With Their Heads Full Of Clouds, the ethereal dreamscape of Spain and several more besides. An extraordinary pen drawing of Freud is all fine lines like spun glass or candyfloss.

Amongst the other treasures on view are three sofas famously based on a Dali painting of Mae West's lips (one in pink satin, another in two- tone pink felt, the third in red felt), two lobster telephones (one white, one red) and the diving suit in which Dali lectured in London in 1936. He was nearly asphyxiated, and had to be released by James wielding a screwdriver. George Melly in the accompanying video documentary calls James the last of the great eccentrics, but he called himself an overgrown child. He probably had a greater talent for patronage than friendship, and obviously derived a lot of fun from his inventions and interventions, but you can't help feeling that some of the ideas are a bit thin intellectually - they're all right as interior decoration, but as art they often leave too much to be desired. Ultimately, this exhibition is a celebration of a personality, though there's nothing wrong with that, and the entertainment factor remains consistently high.

At nearby Hove Museum there's a complementary show of Surrealist works on paper drawn mostly from a private collection. Because the collector wishes to remain unknown, the effect of the exhibition is merely to group together some of the best work being done in Britain and Europe under the banner of Surrealism.

Thus we have an odd imaginary self-portrait by George Grosz, depicting himself as a red-nosed pipe-smoking satin- doubleted infant clasping a goldfinch in his right hand. Two mixed media drawings by Sam Haile show what a talented artist this painter and potter was, untimely killed in a motor accident. Edward Burra is represented by a marvellous large gouache entitled John Deth, and the American expat and teacher Charles Howard, master of black and white, by an abstract composition. There's a fascinating early collage from 1938 by Julian Trevelyan and four works by Eileen Agar (1899-1991) that look as fresh and inventive as anything here. Weighing in at over 80 exhibits, this exhibition is altogether absorbing and usefully wide-ranging.

'A Surreal Life: Edward James', at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until 26 July; 'In The Mind's Eye: Surrealist works on paper', at Hove Museum and Art Gallery until 5 July.

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