Lost in the Labyrinth

Edward James and Minotaure

In the 1968 facsimile of Minotaure, founding director Albert Skira would quote the literary critic Edmond Jaloux, writing in 1936: “When, after some years, one would like to know the hidden aspects of our times, that is to say the preoccupations, the strivings, the interests of those semi-secret groups which form the least evident opinions of an era, the forces that exert the influences in the shadows […] it will be necessary to consult the pages of Minotaure.”1 A neglected episode relating to the ‘hidden aspects’ of Minotaure begins at around the same date – a fascinating and frustrating sequence of events in which Skira’s renowned ‘surreal’ review met with another mysterious and mercurial figure of the cultural landscape of the period – Edward James.

If James is known beyond his founding of West Dean College of Arts & Conservation at his former family estate in West Sussex, it is rarely as the poet he saw himself as. Rather it is as patron of major figures of twentieth century art, notably Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte (among others). At the height of such associations, James became heavily involved in Minotaure culminating, in November 1936, in an agreement to buy the rights to the publication, initially pledging to underwrite and co-edit future editions alongside Skira. James paid 12,000 francs for the Minotaure name, as well as some 50,000 francs for issues he’d had most hand in.2 The agreement committed the new owner to an established format and frequency of publication, at that time luxuriously printed every three months. Overall, James committed over 60,000 francs to Minotaure, yet everything would soon sour, his involvement cut short, as ill-tempered legal disputes dragged on for more than a decade.

Although James’s direct involvement with Minotaure occurred during the mid-1930s, his presence can be felt earlier. The first (double) issue, published in February 1933, included a double-page spread of the handwritten score of Kurt Weill’s composition for The Seven Deadly Sins [Les Sept Péchés Capitaux], with a libretto by Bertolt Brecht, printed ahead of its premiere in Les Ballets 1933 – a company founded by Georges Balanchine and Boris Kochno, financed by James, performing in Paris and London in June / July of that year. Many other works associated with James appeared in Minotaure.3 Many such items – including an autograph manuscript by André Breton, with accompanying illustrations by Max Ernst – are still held in the Edward James Archive at West Dean. These acquisitions, as James was often at pains to point out, were often made through his role as editor rather than patron or collector. James recalls how, when “Picasso gave [him] a beautiful cut-out of a bull’s head for our title page,” he “never asked him to sign it. That never crossed [his] mind.”4

James’s first direct contribution to Minotaure would be as a poet, an opportunity facilitated through his friendship with Dali. In January 1936, Dali reported that Skira was interested in James’s poem [‘Trois Sécheresses’ [‘Three Droughts’]5, when, as James later put it, the Director thought he was a “young penniless surrealist living in Montparnasse.”6 The poem would be published in French, with illustrations by Dali, in Minotaure 8, June 1936. In the run up to publication, simultaneous with the build-up to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London [at which event James would introduce Dali and give a running translation of his infamous ‘diving-suit’ lecture], James’s intimacy with Dali would see him be facilitator/collaborator as much as patron – as he put it “[running] about like a chicken with its head cut off to […]  printers in London and Paris getting things together and trying to get everything done in time so that [the magazine] could appear by the date promised. For Skira, though a delightful person to talk to, is apt to be very unreliable and has to be pushed to get him to do anything on time.”7

After the renowned patron Princesse de Polignac withdrew her financial support in early 1936, Skira, who had not yet considered him a possible patron, asked James to step in.8 James’s role would soon evolve into what Skira himself called “my dear collaborator”.9 James’s involvement in Minotaure 9 was more substantial, both behind the scenes and between the pages. A letter to Osbert Sitwell indicates that things were going well: “[B]oth numbers [i.e. 8 and 9] sold well – but more particularly the last one, which I had more hand in […] it was, I think, one of the best numbers which they have brought out so far.”10 Instead of poetry, James submitted two essays, both under pseudonyms. The first, published in English as ‘The Marvel of Minuteness’, drew comparisons between the techniques of Holbein and Cranach.11 The second, in French, was ‘Le Chapeau du Peuple et les Chapeaux de la Reine’, described by James as a “cheeky” and “impertinent” article on the Queen’s hats.12 The latter is put into context both by James’s The Perfectly Ended Chapter, a poetry pamphlet celebrating the late King George V, and Tristan Tzara’s altogether more risqué appreciation of headgear in Minotaure 3-4.13 James’s intention to publish the text under the penname Pierre Xeo – fearing the wrath of a forbidding aunt – was thwarted by the “undependable” Skira – the first sign of the resentments to come.14

Following the publication of Minotaure 9, after the November buyout, James further developed his “very exciting” plans for what would ultimately be a ‘phantom’ tenth issue that would never see the light of day.15 Writing to the noted English humourist Hilaire Belloc on April 30th 1936, James indicates that Skira had already given him scope to “collect new subject matter by the best sort of English contributors”, for an English language autumn edition, making the most of a large English-speaking readership and putting bilingual expansion into effect.16 James had been asked to approach Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemmingway, and Max Beerbohm, but initially recalled Belloc delivering an essay full of “excellence and wit” on the subject of ‘lying’.17 This would likely be Belloc’s 1923 essay ‘On Footnotes’, a discussion of the “vices or corruptions of the footnote” as a practice of lying in modern history, citing Edward Gibbon as primary offender.18 This is deliciously ironic given James’s own predilection for footnotes and inordinately lengthy asides in his own published work. Describing Minotaure to Belloc, James cites both Life and Letters and the London Mercury – very English literary magazines far removed from, say, Documents or Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution. He makes note of the beautiful standard of printing, particularly the colour reproductions, and highlights essays on “every matter of topical, scientific, architectural, medical and philosophical interest illustrated by innumerable photographs.”19 Dawn Ades has rightly pointed out the “degree to which James’s literary affiliations were distant from Surrealism”, yet the “unthinkable” idea of an article by Belloc appearing in a Surrealist review is predicated on the nature of Minotaure’s Surrealism being secure at the time of James’s involvement.20

James had conscious plans for the Belloc piece, intending to combine it with works from two close friends. The first was fellow ‘eccentric’, Lord Berners, noted composer, writer, painter and wit. James intended to print Berners’s “very funny verses” such as those concerning ‘Red Roses and Red Noses’ which describe how:

Red Roses blow but thrice a year –
In June, July or May:
But owners of Red Noses
Can blow them every day.21

Belloc and Berners were to be joined James’s friend from Oxford, the emerging poet John Betjeman, described by James at the time as “one of the great journalistic wits of this country”.22 Committed to Skira’s plans for Minotaure to include more texts by English writers, James hoped to have “frequent articles from [Betjeman’s] pen” and specifically requested “three or four of his latest poems” – likely those published in the 1937 collection Continual Dew.23 James envisioned his trio of Belloc, Berners and Betjeman as a “sheet of four or eight pages printed on some paper of a different colour – pink or mauve – to be bound in the middle of Minotaure possibly even as a loose sheet – ‘feuille volante’ – with an illumination or two in the margins by Mark Grant.”24 The reference to Ogilvie-Grant (another Oxford acquaintance and Bright Young Thing) links to James’s own extensive experience with private publishing, not only of his own poetry and prose, but also Betjeman’s first collection of poetry, Mount Zion or In Touch with the Infinite, published by The James Press in 1931. James was convinced that the insert would “bring a new element to Minotaure altogether compatible with the eclectic spirit of vitality which has always been characteristic of it”.25 James was clearly confident about the nature of the review he had taken on and indeed his vision for its future – informed by Surrealist ideas and aesthetics (rather than politics) but certainly not dominated by them.26

Evidence of James’s additional plans for the ‘phantom’ tenth issue appear in transcripts acknowledging materials returned to him during subsequent court cases. James prepared colour plates of paintings by trusted talents from his inner circle. Christian Bérard, whom James would later describe as “too little known and too little appreciated in England”, was represented by “one of his three […] seashorescapes”, considered by him “every bit as good as those owned by Vicomte de Noailles and James Thrall Soby.”27 James also ordered numerous reproductions of paintings by Pavel Tchelitchew in support of an article he’d commissioned from Osbert Sitwell (still in the EJ Archive). Tchelitchew was an artist greatly admired by James, who had known him since the 1933 ballets. His work had not been featured in Minotaure and, again, his proposed inclusion may have been resisted by hard-line Surrealists. The spectre of André Breton is never far away from such policing of content and Skira was upfront about yielding to his ultimatums.28 James had visited Breton in Paris in August 1936, appropriately enough finding him “surrounded by manifestos” and attended by a “one-eyed […] cockroach of a good disciple.”29

The ‘phantom’ Minotaure added other intriguing and familiar names to an already eclectic mix: James states that he was “going to obtain an article from André Gide”, an author outside the Minotaure / Surrealist stable; that “Dali […] had written an excellent article in combination with Elsa Schiaparelli with brilliant illustrations”; there were to be “articles by Breton, Prévert, Caillois”, all frequent and recent contributors. James’s passion for music and his contacts among contemporary composers would also be included: an article by Henri Sauguet entitled ‘La Lumiere dans la Musique’ [‘Light in Music’] would be joined by a “photographic reproduction of the manuscript of Poulenc’s latest composition for choirs”.30 This was likely Poulenc’s 1936 composition, Tel jour telle nuit, a cycle of nine songs based on the poetry of Paul Eluard. James would organise its premiere performance at Salle Gaveau, Paris on 3rd February 1937.31 The potential contents are bolstered by other tantalising listings: an unknown ‘typescript signed by James’, ‘16 unknown photographs’, and an intriguing ‘Game of 9 photographs (House in England)’.

Fatal disagreements occurred when James felt that Skira had withheld proceeds from Minotaure editions he had financed. By late November 1936 James had received nothing and Skira seemingly refused to pay. James was indignant that even after having bought Minotaure outright, renewal money from subscribers – amounting to some 80,000 francs – was being withheld. He immediately started legal action yet felt some regret in relation to his plans for the magazine: “If Skira had not let me down in this way […] I would have kept on his office at Paris, paying the running expenses, and worked jointly with him.”32 Instead, James triggered a clause in the contract and gave Skira two months’ notice. James feared “vindictive sabotage” from Skira over his prospective edition, especially with the colour plates he had paid for in advance, and many items were lost in the process.33 The legal battles caused Minotaure to cease publication for close to a year. An Editorial Committee made up of Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Eluard, Maurice Heine, and Pierre Mabille oversaw a new tenth issue, effectively handing the Surrealists complete control over its content: a fully Surrealist review born out of another ‘hidden aspect’, an abortive phantom.34


1 Albert Skira, ‘Introduction’ (New York, May 2nd, 1968), Minotaure (Facsimile edition) New York: Arno Press.
2 [20,000 francs for 1800 copies of No.8; 27,000 francs for 2,200 copies of No.9]
3 David Sylvester has noted that James’s “collection contained several pieces which were probably intended as covers for the review, for example, a drawing by Masson on the theme of Massacres […] as well as Giacometti’s Woman with her throat cut, which appeared in Minotaure 3-4, December 1933, set incongruously in an article on music by Igor Markevitch”, another close associate of James. David Sylvester, ‘Giacometti’s “Woman with Her Throat Cut”’, The Burlington Magazine 140, no. 1139 (1998): 124, http://www.jstor.org/stable/887696.
See also: Igor Markevitch – ‘La Musique est l’art de recréer le monde dan de domain des sons’ in Minotaure Nos.3-4, 14th December 1933.
4 Unsent letter by EJ to Mr. Ritter, undated, c.1981
5 Dali to EJ, 3 January 1936
6 EJ letter to Leonid Berman, July 26th 1951.
7 EJ letter to John Betjeman, 18th December 1936.
8 EJ to Leonid Berman
9 Undated note from Skira to EJ, Edward James Archive. The quoted phrase “mon cher collaborateur” would seem to be a light-hearted reference to Les Trois Amis, an 1844 ‘drama in three acts’ by Jean-Constant Ménissier – ironically enough, his last play. It seems clear that James and Skira were on friendly terms. In a letter to Dali, James hints at an exciting and exotic social world in the background of Minotaure: “Skira is in London. He is very kind. I took him to dinner today with the Marquess of Casati, a famous madwoman of Rome and Paris, who is, in her old age, dressed like the widow of Tutankhamun […] She is very amusing and although not of our generation, I think she will quickly learn to understand us, poor thing.” Edward James letter to Salvador Dali, 27th March 1936.
10 EJ to Osbert Sitwell
11 Edward James, ‘The Marvel of Minuteness’, Minotaure 9 (October 1936): 20-24. [This would be only the second article in English since Herbert Read’s ‘Why the English Have No Taste’ in issue 7.]
12 Edward James, ‘Le Chapeau du Peuple et les Chapeaux de la Reine’, Minotaure9 (October 1936): 54-59.
[13] Tristan Tzara, ‘D’un certain automatisme du Goût’, Minotaure 3-4, December 1933
[14] Letter to O Sitwell
[15] Letter to Zoscia Kochanksi [wife of Paul], 3rd March 1937]
[16] EJ letter to Betjeman
[17] EJ to Belloc, April 30th 1936
[18] Belloc’s text had been previously published: Belloc, On. New York: George H. Doran, 1923.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Dawn Ades, ‘Edward James and Surrealism’ in Nicola Coleby (ed.) A Surreal Life: Edward James (Brighton & Hove: Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, 1998), 78.
[21] Berners would write a light-hearted subversion novel in 1941 called The Romance of a Nose, in which Cleopatra is transformed into a beauty after having a nose job by a Theban physician. His comic song ‘Red Roses and Red Noses’ is dedicated ‘To a Young Lady who wished to have red roses strewn on her tomb.’ The illustrated manuscript (subtitled ‘Nonsense Songs No.1’) shows “goofily picturesque red noses with cupid wings fluttering down the page”. [Zinovieff p141-142]
The full lyrics are:
Some people praise red roses:
But I beg leave to say
That I prefer red noses –
I think they are so gay

à Kempis says we must not cling
To things that pass away:
Red Noses last a lifetime –
Red Roses but a day

Red Roses blow but thrice a year – 
In June, July or May:
But owners of Red Noses
Can blow them every day

22 Edward James, ‘Letter to Pavel Tchelitchew’, 4th February 1937, Edward James Archive, West Dean College
[23] Edward James, ‘Letter to John Betjeman’, 18 December 1936, Edward James Archive, West Dean College.
[24] EJ to Betjeman, 18th December 1936.
[25] EJ to Betjeman, 18th December 1936
[26] In practice, Minotaure became a vehicle for surrealism, but concentrated on aesthetic and literary concerns rather than any political: “to [Surrealism’s] political side the review remained blind.” Ades et al., Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, 280.
[27] [EJ letter to Sir John Rothenstein, Tate Gallery, March 12th 1961.
[28] “I don’t know how many times he issued an ultimatum to me that unless I eliminated a certain article or painting from a forthcoming issue, he would withdraw his own and his friends’ contributions.” Albert Skira, ‘Introduction’ (New York, May 2nd, 1968), Minotaure (Facsimile edition) New York: Arno Press.
[29] Edward James letter to Gala and Salvador Dali, 24th August 1936.
[30] Letter from Edward James to Osbert Sitwell, December 1936, Edward James Archive, West Dean College, part of The Edward James Foundation
[31] Carl B Schmidt, Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2001), 237.
[32] letter to O Sitwell
[33] James would also accuse Skira of having his guarantor and friend [possibly the London bookseller Anton Zwemmer, who also financially supported Skira and Minotaure] bring an action for damages against himself, Skira, for non-continuance of the agreement, in order to play the become the victim then follow it up by an action against James for the damages in said suit: “Zwemmer’s advance orders for Minotaure[…] proved crucial to [its] financial viability. As he paid for these orders in advance, his support effectively amounted to venture capital invested in them.” Nigel Vaux Halliday, More than a Bookshop: Zwemmer’s and Art in the 20th Century (London: Wilson, 1991), 46.
[34] In his biography of Georges Bataille, Michel Surya suggests that “the question remains as to what the ‘surrealism’ of Minotaure was: if the surrealists profoundly influenced it, it was not completely or not only surrealist” Michel Surya, Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography (London ; New York: Verso, 2002), 191.

Written for Surrealisms 2019, University of Exeter.