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Art

Kettle’s Yard

A Collector's Home

The world stops as you duck through the doorway into Kettle’s Yard. The sense of calm holds you in its stillness. Slowly, the house reveals its treasures. Small-scale modernist paintings in humble wooden frames are hung around the spare, white walls. The organic curves of mid-century sculptures sit on mantelpieces beside the bones of a bird, light as air, or on low tables where the sun slants in. Artworks and objects are everywhere, yet the effect is something close to minimalism.

Kettle’s Yard is the creation of Jim Ede who, with his wife Helen, lived in this remarkable house from 1957 to 1973, filling it with his collection of modern art and opening it up to the world. He fell in love with modernism in the 1920s while working as a curator at the Tate Gallery. There he met the artists Winifred and Ben Nicholson: ‘The Nicholsons opened a door into the world of contemporary art and I rushed headlong into the arms of Picasso, Brancusi and Braque.’

They were young and penniless, which always sounds more romantic than it is. Ede’s annual salary was £250; but somehow, art found its way into his possession. In Paris and London he became friends with the artists of the day, who practically gave their work to him; Joan Miró for a drink, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska ‘for a song’, Alfred Wallis for a shilling and Ben Nicholson for nothing at all when Ede – then one of his few admirers – could not stretch to the cost of the canvas and frame.

Within a couple of decades, Ede had built up an extraordinary collection. At that time there were few places for the public to see 20th-century art and he wanted to share with others what had been given to him, not within the formal confines of an art gallery, but in his own home: ‘I found myself dreaming of the idea of somehow creating a living place where works of art could be enjoyed, inherent to the domestic setting, where young people could be at home, unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery.’

Interiors, art, nature and people: Ede wanted to bring these things together along with all the beauty and joy they held for him. He transformed a row of dilapidated workers’ cottages in Cambridge into a house full of sunshine, knocked through into long, light spaces. It was a truly democratic vision. No artworks or objects are labelled. In the context of Kettle’s Yard, a shell is as important as a prominent artist’s work and a pebble with a hole in it shares the value of a Hepworth. A Henry Moore rests unassumingly on a shelf beside Jim’s monastic single bed. Gregorio Vardanega’s Disc spins slowly beside a wall of plants, refracting the light and magnifying the greenery. A vine trails over Ben Nicholson’s 1944 (mugs).

As much as the objects themselves contribute to the harmony of the space, Ede’s precise attention to their placement amplifies the effect. The arrangement of light and dark leads the eye around the room; individual shapes are reflected in the grouping of works; a lemon on a pewter dish is juxtaposed with the yellow spot in Miró’s Tic Tac. Pebbles are everywhere. Ede collected them, eternally searching for the perfect sphere. He wrote letters to friends about how he would sit and hold them as they grew warm in his hands. In his room, arranged with the greatest care, that well known spiral of pebbles sits beside Gaudier-Brzeska’s bronze Torpedo Fish (Toy).

Yet amongst all this precision, Ede made space for others in his aesthetic life. Two (albeit very accomplished) paintings by his grandchildren hang in the loo. He loved visitors, welcoming them to the house every afternoon. He would make them tea and toast in his tiny kitchen, talk to them about art and give his lesson about balance, using his thumb to obscure the yellow circle in the Miró. Helen Ede loved music, and they held concerts around their Bechstein grand piano, on which Brancusi’s smooth black Prometheus still weighs heavy.

In 1970, Royal Festival Hall co-designer Leslie Martin extended Kettle’s Yard, adding a long-lined continuation of the domestic setting to house Ede’s growing collection and a library. Three years later Jim and Helen Ede moved to Edinburgh, and bequeathed Kettle’s Yard to Cambridge University.

Early in 2018 came a very different development. The new wing by Jamie Fobert Architects (Tate St Ives; the National Portrait Gallery’s forthcoming overhaul) is the epitome of a modern art gallery: white cubes with concrete floors and ceilings high enough to house installations on a grand scale. Certainly, this gallery is something separate from the main house; but it does allow the curators of this new chapter in Kettle’s Yard’s history to show big-hitting artists. More than 30,000 visitors came to see Antony Gormley’s SUBJECT in summer 2018. Kettle’s Yard has expanded to fit this fast-growing world and to invite in younger generations seeking to enjoy contemporary art, in all its manifestations, for free. In this way, Ede’s ethos lives on.

Meanwhile, more and more visitors are coming to see the real star of the show, the house. ‘I hope that future generations will still find a home and a welcome, a refuge of peace and order, of the visual arts and of music,’ wrote Ede in 1970. He recognised then, after living through two world wars, the human need for stability. His home remains precisely as he left it: a sanctuary for enlightenment and contemplation, a secular chapel for modern society. And concerts around the Bechstein play on.

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Further reading