In 1936 Edward James proposed to his friend Salvador Dalí that they collaborate to create a complete Surrealist interior for the drawing room of his London home on Wimpole Street. These discussions enjoyed a lively momentum, and the concept swiftly evolved into the project that would lead to the remodelling of James’s country house, Monkton, and establish enduring resonance as one of the most important manifestations of British Surrealism. Throughout 1938 James immersed himself passionately in his new project, negotiating the minutiae of every detail, gaining confidence in the possibilities of his imagination. By summer 1939 the final details of the installation were complete, and the interiors of Monkton revealed themselves as a dazzling and wildly innovative cornucopia.
Amongst the most significant objects to evolve from James’s fertile imagination and his collaboration with Dalí was the Mae West Lips Sofa, of which a total of five were made for James, by two different manufacturers, in 1938. By the early 1930s, assessments of eroticism and sensuality, of seduction and compliance, prevailed as persistent undercurrents within Surrealism. Ambiguities of implicit expression were explored through the communicative parts of the human body, the eye, hands, sexuality and above all the mouth. André Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto of December 1929 featured seductive lipstick-imprints to the cover, and is amongst the first literal expressions of the body within Surrealism.
Crucial to the initial discussions between James and Dalí in 1936, was the latter’s gouache Mae West’s Face which May Be Used as a Surrealist Apartment, 1934-1935 – a deconstruction of a 1934 photograph of Mae West, her characteristics dismantled and re-conceived as furnishing components within an interior, her lips now rendered as a sofa. Together, James and Dali discussed notions of paranoiac furniture – as witnessed by Dalí’s sketch, The Birth of Paranoiac Furniture – which James then planned to manufacture. Dalí attributed his inspiration for the sofa to the uncomfortable, jagged rocks of Cadaqués, which by turn he associated with balconies on the façades of architect Antonio Gaudí.
Dalí and James collaborated on the essential design of the Mae West Lips Sofa, however it was James who decided upon the final shapes, and the upholstery treatment of the five examples that he commissioned for his own use. James designed three different interpretations of the sofa, which were produced as two pairs in wool and a single example finished in satin. Of these five sofas, one pair was produced by Edward Carrick’s firm Associated Artist-Technicians, and another pair and the single satin example were produced by John Hill’s firm, Green & Abbott, who also coordinated most of the other internal works undertaken at Monkton.
The earliest remaining reference to the production of the sofas dates to 20th January 1938. In this correspondence with John Hill, James confirms that pink satin, rather than a misunderstanding over the use of pink leather, is in fact to be used for the one sofa. James further details the specifics of the black fringe to be used on another – this – version of the design, and within the same context references the version then also being made by Edward Carrick. This important document reveals that all three versions of the sofa were conceived concurrently, and with actual production having been sufficiently initiated by late 1937.
In February 1938, James received the first of the sofas, which he retained for the dining room of his Wimpole Street home. This example, produced by Green & Abbott, featured duo-tone pink satin dyed specifically to match couturier Elsa Schiaparelli’s characteristic ‘shocking pink’ lipstick. Schiaparelli remained an influential and active member of the Surrealist circle, and her Upper Grosvenor Street boutique, which opened in 1934, was noted for elaborate Surrealistic window displays. This satin example of the Mae West Lips Sofa remains with the Edward James Foundation, and was recently exhibited at the retrospective Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 29 March – 22 July 2007. In early March 1938, James received an invoice from Edward Carrick for a pair of sofas, these now upholstered in red and pink Melton wool enhanced by brass close-nailed detail to the apron. Of these, one was subsequently purchased from James on the 12 January 1983 by the Royal Pavilion, Libraries & Museums, Brighton & Hove, where it remains exhibited. The other, having been purchased from James by the Robert Fraser Gallery, London, in October 1984, was subsequently secured at auction, Christie’s London, 8 October 2003, by the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam.
The present example is one of a pair that was designed specifically for the Dining Room of Monkton, having remained at the site since delivery in July 1938. This version of the Mae West Lips Sofa, upholstered in bright red wool, is principally distinguished by a heavy black worsted fringe to the green wool apron, and also by an overall structure that is more elongated than the other versions. James’s communication with John Hill reveals fastidious attention to this detail – the fringe was to be specially woven, and according to James, needed “to look like the embroidery upon the epaulettes of a picador, or the breeches and hat of a toreador.” (Edwards James, letter to John Hill, 20th January 1938). James subsequently chose to further ornament this pair of sofas by the careful positioning of three delicate felt appliqué shapes, suggestive of caterpillar larvae, to the seat and backs of both examples. The matching, remaining example of this important pair of sofas remains with the Edward James Foundation.
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Mae West Lips Sofa
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) and Edward James (1907-1984)
Brighton, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, A Surreal Life: Edward James, 1907-1984, April - July 1998, no. 192, pp. 27, 50, 102, 124 (n. 23) & 149 (illustrated pp. 10 & 50).
Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Dalí: The Centenary Retrospective, September 2004 - January 2005, no. 173, p. 284 (a pink satin sofa illustrated p. 285); this exhibition later travelled to Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, February - May 2005.
London, Victoria & Albert Museum, Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design, March - July 2007, p. 42 (a pink satin sofa illustrated, p. 2); these works later travelled to Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, September 2007 - January 2008 and Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum, March - September 2008.
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous, June - September 2016, pp. 205, 206, 208, 246, 258 (illustrated, p. 206; a red and pink sofa illustrated pl. 46); this exhibition will later travel to Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, October 2016 - January 2017 and Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, February - May 2017.
S. Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, New York, 1942, p. 78 (one of the two tone sofas illustrated).
C. Aslet, 'Monkton House, East Sussex', Country Life, 12 September 1985, p. 704.
J. Glancey, ‘Mad Monckton’, World of Interiors, May 1986, p. 148.
M. Etherington-Smith, Dalí, London, 1992, no. 23, pp. 8, 248 & 249 (one of the pink satin sofas illustrated).
R. Descharnes & G. Néret, Salvador Dalí, The Paintings, vol. I, 1904-1946, Cologne, 1994, no. 552, p. 244 (one of the pink satin sofas illustrated).
D. Guinness, 'Edward James', World of Interiors, May 1998, p. 148.
R. & N. Descharnes, Dalí, The Hard and The Soft, Sculptures & Objects, Azay-le-Rideau, 2004, pp. 40-41 (the pink satin sofas illustrated p. 41).
G. Stamp, 'Surreal Recall', Apollo, July 2007, pp. 80-1, fig. 4 (the pair to this sofa illustrated).
Made for Edward James by Green & Abbott in 1938.
At Monkton House, West Dean Estate, West Sussex, until 1986, and then moved to West Dean House, West Sussex.
The Edward James Foundation, West Dean, West Sussex.