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Art for living at Kettle's Yard

— June 2011

Associated media

House extension, upstairs
, showing Winifred Nicholson's Roman Road (1927)

. Kettle’s Yard,
 University of Cambridge. 

Jenny Kingsley visits a home of art in the heart of Cambridge

Near where I live in London, there was recently a ‘garage sale’, for a six-day period, of artworks – prints, photographs, sculpture, ceramics and jewellery – donated by their creators. These artists included painters Patricia Swannell and Sarah Riley Smith and potter and best selling author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal. The sale will help fund a new education wing at Kettle’s Yard.  Associated with the sale were events such as a talk with writers Ali Smith and Amanda Craig, and another with Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate, about the significance of Kettle’s Yard.

The posters made me feel nostalgic; for Kettle’s Yard is one of the first ‘sights’ my husband took me to visit, a ‘magical site’, one he used to frequent when he was a student in Cambridge. But when he said the name of the destination, I was crestfallen. As a naive American, I thought Kettle’s Yard referred to an unassuming garden with a typically British teashop. In America ‘yard’ means modest back garden, and the kettle is associated with quaint British teatime ritual. ‘How wonderful,’ I responded, swallowing disappointment. Was his proposal some simplistic sensibility about what Americans like to do in England? Would we tiptoe along wilting petunias?

But the man was spot on. For Kettle’s Yard, which sits humbly in the city centre by an old mossy church with crooked gravestones, a minute’s walk from the river Cam, is not like anywhere in the world.  There’s no word in any language that captures its essence.

One could not say that it is ‘just’ a museum, gallery, house preserved for posterity, or tastefully contained art collection of this or that, reflecting a particular movement or period. Kettle’s Yard is a place for the public to enjoy modern art and the warm atmosphere of a simply beautiful home with furnishings, pictures, sculptures and natural specimens arranged just as they were by its creator, Harold Stanley Ede, or ‘Jim’ as he liked to be called, when he lived there.

Born in Wales in 1895 and schooled in Cambridge, where he became ‘besotted’ with pictures, Jim determined to be a painter. But while studying at the Slade School of Art, he realized that he preferred collecting, writing and lecturing about art and befriending its makers rather than creating it. Eventually, he became an assistant curator at the Tate Gallery. His friendship with artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson opened the door for him into the world of modern art. He met other British artists such as David Jones, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, painters associated with the St Ives School -  ‘naive painting’, depicting vibrant images of the sea, sky and land and the people who live and work by the water and till the fields; their transport, their tools and their animals.

He also befriended the sculptors Barbara Hepworth (Ben Nicholson’s second wife), Henry Moore and George Kennethson, appreciating the simple sensuous shapes and smooth textures of their work. In Paris, Jim later recalled, he ‘rushed headlong’ into the arms of Picasso, Brancusi, Braque, Chagall and Miró, which led to the opportunity to purchase a great body of work in 1927 by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska – sculpture, drawings, sketchbooks, letters and papers. (The Tate was only interested in a small selection.) In 1930, Jim’s biography A Life of Gaudier-Brzeska was published and later reissued as Savage Messiah. The biography was adapted for the screen by Ken Russell.

Jim was not interested in artists just because they were well known, revered by connoisseurs, or associated with a certain movement or time. What attracted him was ‘the force of life which pushes them into expression’. He was not minded to amass a collection of value. Indeed, many of the pieces among his 1,200 works were gifts, offered in the spirit of friendship or sold to him for token amounts.

‘Painting, like music,’ Jim felt, ‘is an interpretation, and to appreciate it we are forced to keep ourselves free from traditional prejudice – we should be ready for any attitude, not thinking it merely silly because it is not one to which we are accustomed.’

In 1936, Jim resigned from the Tate in order to write, broadcast and lecture about modern art to audiences throughout America, Europe, Africa and India. Meanwhile, he established a home in Hampstead, north London. Perhaps he was attracted to the area because many other artists and modernist architects were living there, some of whom were his friends. Later the Edes moved to Tangier and then to the Loire Valley.

Jim had always enjoyed arranging rooms. He believed a human being needed a room ‘to live in’, cleared of everything and furnished with the ‘light and air which were its nature’. Rooms should be ‘havens of rest in an over-complicated life’. He was passionate about the vitality of spaciousness, the regenerating sense of calm it nurtures. The relative simplicity of form and subject of modern art complements the purity of Jim’s passion for space, its evocative sense of tranquillity.

In 1954, Jim started to dream of creating this sense of space where art could be enjoyed in an intimate setting, especially by young people – rather than within the confines and austere atmosphere of a grand museum. He looked for a stately home that could be linked to a neighbouring university. His search ended when the Cambridge Preservation Society enabled him to salvage and renovate four tiny condemned slum cottages, the foundation of Kettle’s Yard (so called because the name was up on a passageway wall). Students were warmly welcome – indeed, encouraged – to visit.

The unique setting is as unusual as the visitor’s experience. On tugging the rope bell pull one is greeted by a friendly custodian – a gentle, enthusing guardian. Then, wander through an almost maze-like series of rooms, with whitewashed walls and waxed wooden floors. Look at paintings, textiles, ancient and modern ceramics and sculpture displayed as Jim would have shown them. Interspersed are driftwood, shells, pebbles, stones, glass objects and porcelain – and a puppet! There are always pot plants and vases filled with fresh flowers. The furniture is wooden, simple and functional. Regardless of the weather, light always seems to stream through the windows. Sometimes when I am there I feel as if I’m by the sea and can hear only silence.

Visitors are free to sit comfortably and delve into one of Jim Ede’s art catalogues or books – adult and children’s fiction, literary critique, philosophy, religion, art. There is a piano, used for classical and jazz concerts, in the extension opened in 1970 by Prince Charles and celebrated with a concert by Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.

By prior arrangement, researchers may consult the archive of Jim’s letters from artists and fellow collectors, and personal papers – journals, diaries and unpublished manuscripts. (Besides the Gaudier-Brzeska holdings there are those concerning William Congdon,  David Jones, T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’, Helen Sutherland and Elisabeth Vellacott).

On one visit I encountered Christopher Gethin, who remembered visiting the house frequently some 40 years ago when he was a student at Magdalene College:

Ede was slim with a kind face, delightful, so calm, yet still shy, a bit diffident. We’d stay for perhaps half an hour; he loved showing and talking about his collection. Oddly, we never saw any signs of his wife nor grandchildren – he had two daughters. There was no evidence of clutter, packets of biscuits or newspapers. And we could borrow works to display in our rooms.

Indeed, students can still borrow works from the collection in store for a small registration fee (£6) and manageable deposit  (£30). Nowadays, if the original work is valuable, the borrowed version may be a print. My son borrowed a print of a decanter by Ben Nicholson and an abstract by Kate Nicholson, Ben’s daughter, for his rooms.

The modernist architect Sir Leslie Martin (appointed the first Professor of Architecture at Cambridge in 1956) designed the extension, and the gallery, a few steps away, for contemporary exhibitions, with a shop and educational facilities. An appeal for expansion to include environmentally stable storage, increased educational, exhibition and lecture facilities and a café is progressing well. (Hence the sale mentioned above.)

In 1966, the Edes made over Kettle’s Yard to the University of Cambridge and Jim became ‘Honorary Curator’. In 1973, the Edes left Kettle’s Yard and moved to Edinburgh. Helen died in 1983, and Jim died seven years later. 

One cannot help but feel the vitality of art within the rhythm of everyday living at Kettle’s Yard, and sense its potential for nourishing the spirit. We experience Ede’s epiphany – his realization that art is lifeblood to humanity; and how thankful we are to Ede for his legacy. I’m glad that I hid my disappointment on the morning before my first visit. 


Jenny Kingsley
Writer and journalist

Media credit: Photo: Paul Allitt, courtesy of Kettle’s Yard

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