Mark Haworth-Booth on Jim Ede, A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard - Slightly Foxed Issue 42

Living Art

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One of the most charming and illuminating memoirs I know is also the largest. A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard by Jim Ede, published by Cambridge University Press in 1984, is almost a foot square and over an inch thick. It is large because its author was above all a visual man, and he wanted to give due prominence to the many subtly toned black-and-white photographs among which his words gracefully flow. The book is like an ideal visit to Kettle’s Yard, the unique house filled with art and objects Ede created in Cambridge. Through Kettle’s Yard and the way of life it embodies, Ede (1895–1990) influenced generations of Cambridge undergraduates and many artists.

I was one of those undergraduates. I had gone up to Cambridge to read English in 1963. I remember choosing a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Mill from the college loan collection to give my set of rooms a touch of gloomy distinction. It must have been in my second term that a friend told me about a man who opened his house to visitors several afternoons a week to view his collection – he even allowed undergraduates to borrow pictures. My callow imagination conjured up a flashy aesthete in a tall town house, probably with an agenda extending beyond the love of art.

Still I was intrigued, and soon my friend and I were standing outside the modest honey-coloured cottages off Castle Street (near Magdalene College) that Jim had transformed into a home for himself and his wife Helen and a place for art. The bell-pull was a ring of cork, the first indication of Jim’s talent for beachcombing. A chime within brought the owner to the door – a slim, white-haired man with bright blue eyes, wearing a denim-blue jacket. We heard ourselves being welcomed in a musical voice. Jim always wrote down the names of his visitors on a small piece of card kept in his top pocket as an aide-mémoire, careful to spell them accurately and learn them before his guests left. Another friend

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One of the most charming and illuminating memoirs I know is also the largest. A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard by Jim Ede, published by Cambridge University Press in 1984, is almost a foot square and over an inch thick. It is large because its author was above all a visual man, and he wanted to give due prominence to the many subtly toned black-and-white photographs among which his words gracefully flow. The book is like an ideal visit to Kettle’s Yard, the unique house filled with art and objects Ede created in Cambridge. Through Kettle’s Yard and the way of life it embodies, Ede (1895–1990) influenced generations of Cambridge undergraduates and many artists.

I was one of those undergraduates. I had gone up to Cambridge to read English in 1963. I remember choosing a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Mill from the college loan collection to give my set of rooms a touch of gloomy distinction. It must have been in my second term that a friend told me about a man who opened his house to visitors several afternoons a week to view his collection – he even allowed undergraduates to borrow pictures. My callow imagination conjured up a flashy aesthete in a tall town house, probably with an agenda extending beyond the love of art.

Still I was intrigued, and soon my friend and I were standing outside the modest honey-coloured cottages off Castle Street (near Magdalene College) that Jim had transformed into a home for himself and his wife Helen and a place for art. The bell-pull was a ring of cork, the first indication of Jim’s talent for beachcombing. A chime within brought the owner to the door – a slim, white-haired man with bright blue eyes, wearing a denim-blue jacket. We heard ourselves being welcomed in a musical voice. Jim always wrote down the names of his visitors on a small piece of card kept in his top pocket as an aide-mémoire, careful to spell them accurately and learn them before his guests left. Another friend recalls Jim enunciating the name of a blond-haired visitor – ‘David Hockney, is that with an e or without?’

Jim would usually wait until he had a little group assembled to show round. As we stood there, Kettle’s Yard began to reveal its themes: light-filled domestic spaces, white walls, plain wooden surfaces, some decorated with circles of pebbles, fabrics in cream or oatmeal, hand-painted china in corner cupboards, fine old glass gleaming on shelves and harmoniously arranged masterpieces of modern painting and sculpture. I doubt that I’d got much beyond the Impressionists at that time. Now I was introduced to the paintings of Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, David Jones and Joan Miró, to the abstract collages of Italo Valenti, the optical art of Vardanega and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Brancusi and Henry Moore.

Some of the works were charged with great power, such as Gaudier’s bronze Bird swallowing a fish (1914) which Jim linked to the mechanized killing of the First World War (in which the young sculptor died). I also relished the little game Jim played by placing a lemon on a pewter charger below an almost abstract still life with fruit by Ben Nicholson. The actual still life and the painted one interacted, showing how the beauty of real things could be matched and intensified: the patches of coloured paint were simultaneously pure pigment and absolute apple.

I left Kettle’s Yard that afternoon knowing I’d discovered something much better than a private house or a public gallery. I’d found a place in which art and life achieved a rich harmony and balance. I also came away with a framed pen-and-ink drawing to hang in my rooms. It was a Gaudier of an Amazone riding a spirited steed. ‘Don’t hang it in sunlight. Just bring it back at the end of term,’ Jim said as he entered my name and college in his book of loans.

Before long I became a habitué. I realized that if you hung around at the end of visiting time, you might be asked to stay to tea. Then you would meet the lovely Helen, with her white fringe and Scottish brogue. She and Jim had met in Edinburgh soon after the First World War and married in 1921. I learned how delicious marmalade is if produced cold from the fridge and served at teatime. I also gathered that Jim was a regular hospital visitor who would sit and talk to patients who had no friends or family visiting them. And each evening at 6 p.m. Jim would ring the bell at St Peter’s, the tiny church nearby, to sound the Angelus. The Edes’ lives were full of practical piety, woven into the aesthetics of living. This is beautifully captured in the text and many photographs in A Way of Life, but especially in this passage:

Winifred Nicholson taught me much about the fusing of art and daily living, and Ben Nicholson that traffic in Piccadilly had the rhythm of a ballet and a game of tennis the perfection of an old master. Life with them at once seemed lively, satisfying and special.

I began to learn about Jim. He had attended the Newlyn Arts School and then the Slade before going to the Tate as assistant to its director in 1921. While he readily befriended the adventurous young painters of his generation, the Tate remained aloof.

Eventually, in 1936, Jim and Helen moved to Tangiers – from where he went on lecture tours to the US – and later to the Loire valley. They settled in Cambridge and began making Kettle’s Yard out of four condemned cottages in 1956. By my time as an undergraduate, it was well established. I was startled to find that Jim had been offering Kettle’s Yard as a gift to the University of Cambridge for several years, but was always turned down because of worries over expense and questions about whether enough people would visit a place that seemed very modest compared to the mighty Fitzwilliam Museum.

In 1966, a fellow undergraduate, James Fraser, and I devised a petition urging the university to accept the gift. Jim pointed us towards known fans of Kettle’s Yard, including distinguished scientists, as well as enthusiastic fellows, undergraduates and other well-wishers. He mentioned E. M. Forster and I arranged to visit the great novelist. His rooms at King’s were on the first floor of A staircase, on the left as you enter the college from King’s Parade. Like many other undergraduates, I had read his The Longest Journey (1907) – partly set in Cambridge – with acute interest, identifying completely with its troubled protagonist Rickie.

Forster waved me to a chaise-longue, on one end of which were that morning’s opened letters, their envelopes crumpled on the carpet. He offered me water biscuits and said yes of course he knew Jim – Jim had been on the fringes of Bloomsbury in the Twenties – and of course he would sign. He did so in the way the elderly do, placing the nib of his pen on the paper with deliberation and then making the characters in a desperate rush. I was elated. A week or so later I received a postcard from Aldeburgh. It had been written on Forster’s behalf by someone with a firmer hand. The message ran: ‘I now realize what your petition is about. I am so glad I signed it.’

Another signature was that of an undergraduate Jim said I should be sure to contact. I left a sheet for Nicholas Serota and soon received it back duly signed. A selection of signatories’ names was published in the Cambridge Review and an article appeared in the student paper Varsity. I went down that June but stayed in touch with Jim. On 28 October 1966 he wrote: ‘I’m glad at last to be able to announce what I expect you have already heard, that the University has accepted Kettle’s Yard and all that is in it, stones and all (I’ve kept a bed or two) . . .’

The University went on to buy a piece of adjoining land and, with Jim’s participation, commissioned Sir Leslie Martin to build an elegant gallery extension. It was opened in May 1970 by the Prince of Wales, then an undergraduate at Trinity. An inaugural concert was given by Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim. Under a series of inspired directors, Kettle’s Yard has been further extended with a separate exhibition gallery but always in the spirit of the four cottages transformed by Jim, which remain the aesthetic core.

Helen and Jim left Cambridge for Edinburgh in 1973 and Helen died there in 1977. I visited Jim in his new quarters in Morningside. I remember calling on him when I was due to give a public lecture at the University of Edinburgh and nervously saying, as I left him at his front gate, ‘I hope they like me.’ ‘I’m sure they’ll love you,’ he replied. When he became frail, Jim moved into a ground-floor flat in the house of one of his daughters. I visited him there and found that he’d contrived to make his rooms into a mini Kettle’s Yard, using space, light, natural materials, well-chosen art works and some good pebbles.

Some of us went on from Cambridge to work in museums and galleries. I feel sure that Sir Nicholas Serota, CH, as he now is, would agree that although we may have enlarged the numbers involved in looking at art of many different kinds, no public galleries match the quality of the experience offered by Kettle’s Yard. There we find not only objects but a whole way of life.

I found myself thinking of Jim only a few days ago as I contemplated the rather grubby slabs of stone set in the lawn between our front door and the garden gate. A passage in Jim’s memoir describes how he scoured similar slabs at his house in Hampstead in the Thirties and brought them to a shine. I could never emulate Jim’s strenuously aesthetic way of life but I’m so pleased I got to know him and it.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 42 © Mark Haworth-Booth 2014


About the contributor

Mark Haworth-Booth worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1970 to 2004, where he served as senior curator of photographs. He now lives in North Devon near some excellent pebble beaches.

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