04:44 EST, 1 April 2014
13:05 EST, 1 April 2014
The Mexican jungle is certainly not the first place you would look for art.
But one eccentric British millionaire decided the lush Sierra Madre hillside is the perfect setting for his selection of surreal sculptures.
The late Edward James, a wealthy arts patron, created the unusual Las Pozas park ‘as a joke to a future generation’ and filled it with quirky sculptures that look almost unfinished.
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Mystery: The gardens are buried deep in the jungle, with surreal sculptures emerging from the undergrowth along a network of different pathways
Flight of fancy: British millionaire Edward James was an art patron and loved the idea of creating a surreal escape among the trees
Spiral staircases lead nowhere and ornate concrete structures look like undiscovered ruins from a past civilisation.
‘Mr. Edward wanted to bewilder,’ said Carlos Barbosa, a park guide.
Set on a 100-acre hillside where the Sierra Madre mountains meet the coastal plains of the northeast state of San Luis Potosi, the jungle has steadily encroached on the sculpture park.
But that didn’t bother James, who liked
to think that future archaeologists would discover his lost city and
wonder what kind of civilization had built it, Barbosa said.
The son of British aristocrats and
grandson of a Canadian timber baron, James first went to Mexico in 1944
at the invitation of psychiatrist Erich Fromm. He joined a salon of
intellectuals and artists at Cuernavaca, the resort city just southeast
of Mexico City.
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Art lover: James inherited a fortune from his father and used the money to support the work of great surrealists, including Dali, Magritte, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo
Elaborate hoax: Carlos Barbosa, a park guide, said James ‘wanted to bewilder’ visitors with his unusual 100-acre estate
He inherited a fortune from his
father and used the money to support the work of great surrealists,
including Dali, Magritte, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo.
‘I had seen videos and documents but I didn’t expect it to be so impressive,’ said Vida Arellano, a tourist from the northern state of Chihuahua. ‘Once you are here, you are enveloped by nature, the sculptures, the architecture … it transports you to a different mental state.’
Las Pozas means the pools and James spent 20 years of his life building the garden, but it was still only half-built by the time he died 30 years ago.
The original project, interestingly, had nothing to do with the garden’s ultimate design.
The Pools: Sculptures at the 100-acre Las Pozas gardens evoke the ruins of ancient Greece but are overrun by exotic plants
Practical joke: James loved the thought that future generations could happen upon the sculptures and think they belonged to an ancient culture
For years, James cultivated thousands of orchids on his land, but in 1962 a cold snap destroyed them, said Zaira Linan, the park’s assistant director. James then ordered workers to build cement flowers that weather couldn’t destroy, Linan said.
James’ imagination didn’t stop with the flowers. He began to design increasingly complex sculptures, often inspired by artistic philosophies he encountered in his travels. He would sketch his sculptures on postcards and mail them to Gastelum.
Barbosa remembered with amusement James’ many eccentricities, including the time he asked a cook to make a banquet for a menagerie of exotic animals he kept and loved like his children.
In bloom: The land was originally used to grow orchids, but after a cold snap destroyed them James moved on to a altogether different idea
Hidden delight: The gardens opened to the public in 1990 and now attract around 75,000 visitors a year to explore the hidden walkways
James ‘used to walk naked through the park and even though he was a millionaire, he often slept in a sleeping bag among the weeds,’ Barbosa said.
Walking through the labyrinthine paths overrun by the jungle is an adventure. With park guides’ help, visitors can access the most remote corners of the park, including a concrete bed shaped like a tree leaf where James used to meditate and prepare for death.
But James didn’t die in his precious park. He died in 1984 in San Remo, Italy, when a stroke put an end to his delirious project.
Since he didn’t leave any sketches for future sculptures, construction halted and the jungle began to take over, Linan said.
In 1990, the park opened to the public and now it draws 75,000 curious visitors each year.