London's V&A has acquired one of the most important examples of British Surrealist furniture ever produced.
Purchased with support from Art Fund, the V&A members and a bequest from Derek Woodman, the Mae West Lips sofa was the joint creation of artist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) and his most important British patron, Edward James (1907-1984).
Dalí and James collaborated on the design after James suggested that they should create a sofa based on Dalí’s gouache (or drawing) ‘Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment’ (1934-35). James had five Mae West Lips sofas produced in 1938 in different fabrics. A pink satin version has previously been on long-term loan to the V&A, appearing as a star object in the 2007 major exhibition Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design. The version that the V&A has now acquired is one of a pair designed specifically for James’ country home, Monkton House in West Sussex, originally designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1902.
Following its sale by the Edward James Foundation in 2017, a temporary export stop was placed on the sofa after the buyer applied to export it from the UK.
Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, said: “This is one of the most beautiful and important examples of modern furniture ever produced. Its provenance and the circumstances of its creation are exceptional in the annals of modern art and design in Britain."
Added Stephen Deuchar, director of Art Fund: “Salvador Dalí and Edward James’ Mae West lips sofa has become both an iconic piece of 20th century design and a joyous expression of Surrealism. For the V&A to save this for the nation is an absolute triumph, and we’re delighted to play a part in its acquisition. I am sure that it will be a huge favourite with visitors from around the country and the world.”
James renovated the Lutyens-designed Monkton House in the mid-1930s as part of his attempt to create ‘a complete Surrealist house’. He was assisted by architects Christopher ‘Kit’ Nicholson and Hugh Casson, as well as decorator Norris Wakefield. The home artfully combined James’s taste for Victorian, Edwardian and Surrealist design, and included intentionally shocking Surrealist objects such as the bright red Mae West Lip sofas with black
wool fringing. James described that their fringing was intended ‘to look like the embroidery upon the epaulettes of a picador or the breeches and hat of a toreador’. When the Edward James Foundation put the Monkton House up for sale in 1986, the remaining contents of the house, including this sofa, was moved to the foundation’s headquarters in West Dean.
Dalí was the most famous of all Surrealist artists and remains one of the most popular of modern artists today. In 1935 Dalí met a kindred spirit in the British collector and poet Edward James. This led to a deep friendship between James and Dalí, with James becoming a largescale collector of Dalí’s work, and the pair embarked on various artistic collaborations. James rapidly became Britain’s most distinguished supporter of Surrealism, and his collection one of the largest and most important in the world. Most of it has now been dispersed. James was a
strong promoter of Surrealism and partly responsible for its international recognition.