The Surreal Gardener: Edward James & the Making of Las Pozas

On paper it reads like a lost Wes Anderson script: an eccentric English millionaire poet – and self-professed illegitimate grandson of a king – flees England to Mexico via Hollywood in the 1940s, as war rages through Europe and his marriage to a promiscuous ballet dancer crumbles in divorce. Cast-off, he befriends a handsome Mexican postmaster and the two embark on a journey through Mexico in search of wild orchids and land on which to build a fantastical Garden of Eden. Welcome to Las Pozas: the real-life garden of Edward James in Xilitla, San Luis Potosi.

Las Pozas, or the Pools, is a sprawling sculpture garden built within an abandoned, eighty-acre coffee plantation deep in the Huastecan jungle. It bears some resemblance to a splintered M.C. Escher drawing – thrown by the handful into the dense mountainside and then left for years to its own devices. The mastermind behind it was Edward James, a smiling, wide-eyed English aristocrat with a shock of white hair, who travelled the world for most of his lifetime dodging taxes, making friends of surrealists, and acquiring artworks, houses, hotel suites and exotic animals on his way. Las Pozas was first a refuge for Don Eduardo, as the locals called him, and later the site for his ultimate expression of life and eccentricity.

If I ask my heart and conscious the incentive behind building a tower, I have to admit it was just pure megalomania,” he said of his garden.

Something like Las Pozas is only built once in our history, and wouldn’t exist but for the esoteric union of a series of one-off conditions: the personality of Edward James; his immense, inherited wealth; his close relationship with the Surrealist movement, including the likes of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Leonora Carrington; the architectural freedom which Mexico offered at the time absent a strict building code; the wild fertility and remoteness of the jungle; and chance meetings with people who could actually help him to pull the whole thing off – Plutarco Gastelum, postmaster, chief amongst them.

Edward first arrived in Xilitla in 1945 with his secretary, Carl, and Plutarco as his guide. He’d discovered Plutarco in a post office south of Mexico City only months earlier and plucked him from his routine work there with the lure of adventure and money.

Edward had grown up in unique circumstances in England, on a vast estate called West Dean, and was heir to a railroad and steel fortune, which he applied generously towards publishing poetry, buying art and gardening. Plutarco had the looks of an Aztec king and was an ordered, logical soul capable of both balancing and enabling Edward’s giddy visions. The two became close friends from the get-go.

It was destiny that steered Edward towards Xilitla in search of land for his greatest act of gardening and creation. He’d been told of wild orchids growing in that part of the Huastecan wilderness, and was intent on seeing them in flower.

What met him on arrival matched in exoticness his own loose troop: there they were, two foreigners and a Mexican postman driving a luxury Packard through the middle of supernaturally green jungle, teetered recklessly on a mountainside.

The air in Xilitla was humid, and blessed with a cosmic quality, giving over the feeling of paradise, rigour and possibility. If anything, Edward James had finally arrived home in one of the most botanically diverse and inaccessible parts of Mexico.

His initial project in Xilitla was the construction of a refuge for himself and 20,000 rare and exotic orchids, on a plot of land that he bought just outside town in Plutarco’s name. Several good seasons of flowers were followed by a freakish, one-off snowfall that razed the orchids overnight, and Edward in retaliation shifted his attentions towards the creation of something more permanent. From the 1960s and into the early 80s he and Plutarco worked with a revolving team of local builders and master craftsman on a surrealist playground of towering sculptures. It was a ready-made ruin of sorts, heralding a civilisation that never did exist – and for which Edward was the mystical Wizard of Oz figurehead.

PS. Stay tuned for the second instalment of this fascinating story later this month.