A Way of Life Informed by Beautiful Objects

Kettle’s Yard’s upstairs house extension © Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge University

In this, the first of two articles, we are visiting one of my favourite collections and spaces, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. The spirit of the place is born out of the gentle, generous and persistent creativity of Jim Ede, the man who put it all together.

Jim Ede would describe the house and collection as reflecting a way of life, of being, expressing the joy and stability in being accompanied in life by beautiful objects be they humble stones or paintings and sculptures by some of the most important artists of the 20th century. It reflects Jim Ede’s relationships with a group of Modern British artists whose thinking often influenced him, and his personal desire to share it with others.

Reflecting on the inspiration for Kettle’s Yard Jim Ede wrote ‘I suppose it began by my meeting with Ben and Winifred [Nicholson] in 1924 or thereabouts, while I was an Assistant at the Tate Gallery…it wasn’t until I was nearly thirty that the Nicholson’s opened a door into the world of contemporary art and I rushed headlong into the arms of Picasso, Brancusi and Braque without losing my rapture over Giotto, Angelico, Monaco and Piero della Francesca.’ Ede saw a continuity between the early Italians and Ben Nicholson’s work.

In 1926 Jim Ede purchased most of the studio contents of the French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska who had been killed in action in 1915. He published ‘The Savage Messiah’ which established the artist’s place in art history whilst ensuring that examples of his work were acquired for Tate and the Contemporary Art Society.
The artist Winifred Nicholson taught him about the ‘fusing of art and daily living’, of holiness in the everyday and its tasks, whilst the artist David Jones, who worked at Ditchling in Sussex for a time, gave him a vocabulary to articulate the ephemeral. Jim Ede’s expression of faith, his spirituality, combined the generous discipline of practical work with reflection, invitation, hospitality, balance and a celebration of beauty which resonates with me as a Benedictine.
In 1970 the extension to Kettle’s Yard was opened creating a space where concerts could be held and which visitors could inhabit. The English Georgian and provincial pieces of furniture, together with the welcoming armchairs, sit comfortably alongside the exceptional 20th century paintings and sculpture in that eclectic, layered way which defines the British interior at its best.

It was Ben Nicholson who introduced Jim Ede to the work of the St Ives fisherman and artist Alfred Wallis. A selection of Wallis’ work would regularly arrive by post and whilst Ede could not afford to buy all that was offered he acquired enough to line several walls as you can see here.

Ede created vistas and layered perspectives in these interiors by the careful and intentional placing of art and objects which interact with each other, the changing light and viewpoints at Kettle’s Yard in a series of extraordinary, processional compositions.

In the foreground is Gaudier-Brzeska’s bronze ‘Garden Ornament’ which Jim Ede has typically filled with stones, and in the distance, to the right, the artist’s 1912 bronze study ‘Maria Carmi as the Madonna’. Our eye is drawn to Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Three Personages’. At the heart of this composition on the far wall is Winifred Nicholson’s large landscape which Jim Ede described as ‘a great world of beauty’. The landscape with its English lane would have been painted from life. Winifred worked quickly completing a canvas in a single siting. The broad areas of colour are made more intense by the white paint used to prime the canvas.

The balance in the composition of the space would be diminished if any one piece were not there.

This exceptional and very personal collection reflects the generous creativity of Jim Ede. Next week we will be returning to Kettles Yard to explore some of the more intimate spaces in the house to explore the relationships between artist and patron. To find out more about Kettle’s Yard visit www.kettlesyard.co.uk.