Kettle’s Yard nestles in the centre of Cambridge, by an old church, a minute’s walk from the River Cam, and amidst the splendour of the colleges of the city’s renowned university. Indeed, it is unlikely that there is anywhere in the world quite like it or that a word exists in any language which captures its essence. For one could not say that it is a gallery, a museum, a house preserved for posterity, or a tastefully contained art collection reflecting a particular movement or period. Yet all the while, Kettle’s Yard is a place for the public to enjoy modern art and the ambiance of a beautiful home with furnishings, pictures, sculptures and natural specimens arranged just as they once were by its creator, Harold Stanley Ede or ‘Jim’, as he liked to be called.
Born in Wales in 1895 and schooled in Cambridge, where he became ‘besotted’ with pictures, Jim determined to be a painter. He studied at the Slade School of Art, but actually found 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 Ben and Winifred Nicholson opened a door into the world of modern art, and he met other British artists, such as David Jones, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis: painters, like the Nicholsons, associated with the St Ives School – creators of ‘naïve paintings’ depicting vibrant images of the sea, sky and land and the people who lived and worked by the water and tilled the fields, their transport, their tools and their animals. He also befriended the sculptors Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and George Kennethson, admiring 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 by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (the Tate had declined the offer!).
Jim was not especially interested in the dates of artists or in their names or in what school they belonged to, but rather ‘the force of life which pushes them into expression’. He was adamant that ‘painting, like music, 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’. Hence, Jim was not minded to amass a collection identifying a certain movement or period; and many of the pieces among his 1,200 works were gifts presented in the spirit friendship or sold to him for token amounts. It was never for the sake of prudent investment that Jim’s treasures became such.
In 1936, Jim resigned from the Tate and began writing, broadcasting and lecturing about modern art to audiences throughout America, Europe, Africa and India. Meanwhile, he established a home in Hampstead, north London, later moving to Tangier and then 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 enthusing sense of calm it nurtures; we need its natural air to breathe healthily and contentedly. The relative simplicity of form and subject of modern art complements the purity of space, its evocative sense of tranquillity, for which Jim had a passion.
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 attempted to find a house 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 dwellings, the foundation of Kettle’s Yard (so called because the name was displayed on a passageway wall). Students were warmly welcomed to visit in the afternoons.
Indeed, the unique setting is as unusual as the visitor’s experience. One rings the rope bell and is greeted by a friendly custodian – a gentle, enthusing guardian. We wander through a maze-like series of rooms, with white-washed walls and waxed wooden floors. We see 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 seem to stream through the windows. One is free to sit comfortably and enjoy one of Jim Ede’s art catalogues or books – adult and children’s fiction, literary critique, philosophy, religion, art. We come across 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 – lectures, journals, diaries and unpublished manuscripts. Extensive holdings concern William Congdon, Gaudier-Brzeska, David Jones, T E Lawrence ‘of Arabia’, Helen Sutherland and Elisabeth Vellacott.
On my last visit, I encountered Christopher Gethin, who recalled 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 very valuable, a reproduction may be lent. My son, Patrick, has a print of a decanter by Ben Nicholson and an abstract by Kate Nicholson, Ben’s daughter, in his rooms.
Adjoining the house is a modern addition with gallery space for contemporary exhibitions (including photography and mixed media), a shop, and education room. An appeal is underway for additional expansion, to include environmentally stable storage for the collection, a café and an education/seminar room.
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. Jim died seven years later.
When one visits Kettle’s Yard, one cannot help but feel the vitality of art within the rhythm of everyday living, and sense its potential for nourishing the spirit. We experience Jim Ede’s epiphany – his realisation that art is lifeblood to humanity; and how thankful we are to him for his legacy.
For information about opening hours, please visit http://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/ (At present Kettle’s Yard house and gallery are closed because of a major building project being undertaken.)
First published in The Art Book, Volume 17, Issue 1, pages 30–31, February 2010.