Sussex is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Edward James, one of the most generous and eccentric supporters of the arts the county has ever known.

James, who died in 1984 from a stroke at the age of 77, is now largely forgotten but in his day he was one of the most celebrated men in Britain.

Born in 1907 into an Edwardian era of opulence, James came from a family which had made a fortune in railways and timber.

The novelist Henry James was a cousin and King Edward VII was his godfather. Some said the libidinous monarch was also his grandfather but that was never proved.

Sadly, his father died when James was just five. He inherited £1 million, a fabulous sum in those days, at 21 from an uncle and, when he was 25, the West Dean estate near Goodwood from his father.

This included a large mansion, a village, 6,000 acres of woods and farmland and several other houses.

He went to Eton and from there to Oxford where he was noted for driving a Rolls-Royce, something few other students could afford.

But James had no interest in becoming a country squire as his mother had hoped. Instead, he became passionately interested in the arts.

At Oxford he met Harold Acton, always described as "the well known aesthete", Evelyn Waugh the author and the poet John Betjeman.

Instead of marrying a county lady and becoming a Conservative MP, James met strange artists such as Salvador Dali and when he was 21 he married the Austrian dancer, Tilly Losch.

In time he knew everyone. He met the Bloomsbury set and he talked to Freud. He let a house to Greta Garbo and he commissioned work by Stravinsky.

James sponsored work by Dylan Thomas and wrote poetry for Edith Sitwell. He knew DH Lawrence and Aldous Huxley.

He converted Monkton, a hunting lodge on the West Dean estate, into a temple of surrealism. It had been designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for his father in conventional fashion. James had it painted purple and green.

Inside he installed a bed like Nelson's funeral hearse and had a carpet woven for the house with his wife's footprints.

But he ripped that up eventually because Tilly was unfaithful to him, having an affair with Winston Churchill's wayward son, Randolph.

He replaced it with a paw print of his favourite dog, a wolfhound.

He had a famous sofa by Dali in the shape of Mae West's lips and a telephone by the artist in the shape of a lobster.

James sponsored a book of poems by Betjeman which helped propel the poet to fame. He also brought Dali over to London from France and the artist spoke at a surrealist exhibition wearing a diving helmet to indicate he was plunging into the human mind.

Eventually James became disillusioned with Dali, regarding the publicity-mad artist as a charlatan.

He also divorced Tilly in 1934 for being unfaithful to him and this alienated him from some of his friends.

James began to spend less time in both his London home and at West Dean, preferring to travel abroad. He began to live increasingly in America among colonies of artists.

Dali, who also moved to America, found such fame and fortune there he did not need his old patron any more.

In the Forties, James created a surrealist garden in a clearing in the Mexican jungle. He also collected orchids and supported a local family.

James then created a foundation to run West Dean, which still flourishes today. White bearded and seldom seen, he became a remote and even mysterious figure to his many former friends in Sussex.

But when he died, his body was brought back to West Dean and the simple stone where he is buried describes him as poet.

His art collection came to be sold later. It included works by Magritte, Picasso, Miro, Ernst and Dali. It showed James, although an odd human being, had good sense when it came to art.

  • West Dean gardens are open for much of the year. The college offers short courses for students in everything from writing to metalwork.

Rooms in the house can be hired for conferences.

  • An exhibition about James and surrealism called Surreal Things is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until July 22.