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One of the world’s best-known pieces of furniture, Salvador Dalí’s Mae West lips sofa, started life as a sketch on the back of an envelope, research in the archive of a Sussex country house has revealed.
The sketch was unearthed at West Dean near Chichester, the former home of Dalí’s patron Edward James, and experts say it reveals the extent to which James was involved in the creation of the 1930s sofa. Alongside the lobster telephone, also the result of a collaboration between Dalí and James, it is one of the emblems of the surrealist movement.
The find was made as part of the preparations under way at West Dean to digitise and share online James’s 2,300-item archive, which includes a tantalising array of correspondence, first editions and sketches by a host of 20th-century artistic greats who were linked to James. These include Dalí, whose work James funded at one point for an entire year, and also surrealist artists including René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Leonora Carrington and Jean Cocteau. It also includes Pablo Picasso and writers Aldous Huxley and John Betjeman.
Highlights include Magritte’s preparatory sketch for a portrait of James entitled The Pleasure Principle; a Cocteau sketch of an Elsa Schiaparelli dress coat; letters to and from Carrington stretching across several decades, Picasso sketches and original music scores by Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky and Bertolt Brecht.
According to Hugh Morrison, collections manager at West Dean, the genesis of the Mae West sofa was James’s idea in 1936 to give the drawing room of his London home in Wimpole Street an entirely surrealist interior. “This idea sparked Dalí’s imagination, and the two of them began to discuss it, each feeding off the other,” he says.
Dalí had already sketched an outline for a project he described as “Mae West’s face which may be used as a surrealist apartment” in honour of the movie star, and at some point James suggested that West’s lips could be the inspiration for a sofa, and said he would undertake its production. The back-of-an-envelope sketch discovered in the archive is thought to have been the work of Edward Carrick, a designer with whom James was working at the time.
According to Christopher Wilk, keeper of furniture, textiles and fashion at the V&A, which owns one of five known versions of the sofa, the West Dean sketch relates to the first of the sofas to be produced – certainly in Britain. It was a pink satin version coloured to match the shocking pink shade of lipstick of designer Schiaparelli, for whose apartment it was perhaps destined.
Letters in the James archive also reveal that his original intention was to have this sofa upholstered in leather, until he discovered that it had been a misunderstanding that Schiaparelli liked that idea; in fact she hated it, and said she’d much prefer it in satin. That version is now in the collection at West Dean; the version at the V&A is a later model, upholstered in bright red wool with a black fringe.
Wilk says the story of the lips sofa raises interesting questions about the authorship of artistic works. “The envelope sketch and the correspondence helps explain James’s role in creating these sofas, and it’s quite clear that while the original concept was Dalí’s, much of the exacting work in actually creating the pieces was down to James,” he says.
James (1907-1984) was a colourful and complicated character whose life was often controversial: there was speculation he was the grandson of King Edward VII, who was a regular visitor to West Dean where he was thought to have been seeing his illegitimate daughter Evelyn, James’s mother. James used his vast wealth, the product of two inherited fortunes, to fund the work of surrealist artists in Europe and also Mexico, where he spent much of his time and where he created a concrete surrealist sculpture garden, Las Pozas.
Morrison says James kept a phenomenal amount of paperwork, and the archive has taken many years to unravel. “It’s full of treasures, and we are now almost ready to share them with a wider world via digitisation,” he said. West Dean became an arts college in 1971, towards the end of James’s life, and the ambition is to mark its 50th anniversary with the virtual opening of the archive.
Wilk says the lips sofa achieved its iconic status in the 1960s and 70s when it came to be seen as proto-pop and was given a new lease of life. Copies followed across the world, and celebrities including Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé and Katy Perry have been photographed posing on them. “It’s such an outrageous piece, and it was one of a kind – there was nothing else like it,” he said. “In the days of Dalí and James, its overt sexuality wasn’t widely acceptable, but today that’s very different. It came into its time, and it became an emblem of sexualisation.”
Tantalisingly, there’s a possibility that another original sofa is out there, probably in France. “We know that another sofa or two may have been created by French designer Jean-Michel Frank in Paris, so there’s always the possibility that we might get lucky one day and another one will emerge,” Wilk said.