Edward James was born August 16, 1907, the only son of William James, an American railroad magnate who moved to England and married Evelyn Forbes, a Scots socialite, who was reputedly fathered by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). James was educated briefly at Eton, and then at Le Rosey in Switzerland, then at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. In 1912 he inherited the 8,000-acre (32 km²) West Dean Estate in Sussex, on the death of his father.
James is best known as a passionate and early supporter of Surrealism. He sponsored Salvador Dalí for the whole of 1938 and his collection of paintings and art objects that subsequently came to be accepted as the finest collection of surrealist work in private hands. He also provided practical help, supporting Dalí for about two years and allowing Magritte to stay in his London house to do some paintings.
Before the war he chose to live in Mexico where he lived an eccentric and luxurous life, building fantastic residences and statues, notably Los Pozas ("the Pools") a gigantic sculpture garden ; in 1964 he gave his estate to the West Dean charity.
In 1981 he decided to sell the paintings Le Sommeil (above ) by Dali and the print La Minotauromachie (right) by Picasso. Le Sommeil went for $ 813,000 et La Minotauromachie for $ 160,800. It is now at the MOMA in New York.
He died in 1984. The rest of his fabulous collection of Surrealists and Latin America paintings was auctioned off in 1986 by Christie's.