On Friday, my daughter and I set off on a day trip to Cambridge – or should I say pilgrimage since this is about a five-hour round trip from where we live – to visit a place called Kettle’s Yard that, I admit, I hadn’t even heard of until very recently. Our mission: for her to spend time at the former home of Harold Stanley ‘Jim’ Ede which forms the core of this living gallery (though ‘gallery’ is the very antithesis of what it is) to carry out some sketches and observations for her school GCSE Art project.
Before setting off, I was aware that Ede was a collector of art and that his collection had been preserved, and presented ‘in situ’ amongst his personal possessions as it was in his lifetime, by Kettle’s Yard but the penny didn’t drop, until I got there, that the rooms used for the display are the very house where he lived with his wife between 1956 and 1973.
Ede was a curator at the Tate Gallery in the 1920s and 30s and considered himself a ‘friend of the artists’, counting Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, David Jones and Christopher Wood amongst his closest friends and acquiring work from these and others that include Henry Gaudier-Brzeska, Joan Miró, Alfred Wallis, Constantin Brancusi, William Condon and Lucie Rie through his connections with the art world.
Following an early retirement, he and his wife Helen travelled and spent time living in Morocco before moving to Cambridge in 1956 with the intention of settling there. Ede had a vision of a whole new way of presenting his art collection, imagining it bathed in natural light amongst the ordinary domestic trappings of a home where people could come to enjoy it from the perspective of an armchair plumped with cushions or adjacent to a window beaming dust motes and gentle patterns onto faded wooden floors scattered with a homely patchwork of mismatched rugs. Put in his own words, his vision was that visitors would “find a home and a welcome, a refuge of peace and order, of the visual arts and music…a continuing way of life…in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture” would be presented naturally to the eye “in light and space”.
As soon as I stepped into “the house” at Kettle’s Yard (and though I don’t pretend to possess a world-class collection of art…), I was taken aback to discover so many similarities to my own home; a pervading flavour of familiarity in the way objects had been gathered and arranged. So very similar to the room where I sit typing this, handfuls of pebbles, geodes and other natural objects are positioned in patterns and rows as objects of interest and numerous glass paperweights and oddities chosen for their form or the way they catch the light are placed side-by-side with treasured books and personal items, even the self-same blue Deflt tiles that are right in front of me are strewn on tables at Kettles Yard as coasters. Comfortable chairs are angled in such a way as to allow the appreciation of a particular composition or a view from a window and light catchers and glass forms hung from up high catch and magnify the afternoon sun. Rugs, textiles and oddities of furniture feel collected and cherished, not coordinated, and simple slats at the windows offer unobtrusive shade. Loosely arranged flowers in simple vases jostle for attention with well-considered objects d’art and interesting forms of all kinds, from sculpture to bottles and drift wood, peek from stair-wells and nooks behind doorways in the same way that make vacuuming slightly less than straightforward in my own house.
Above all, art in all its many forms, is scattered and hung literally everywhere as part of ‘ordinary’ life without so much as a hint of a line marking where one territory ends and the other begins: certainly not presented in a sterile way, with labels hanging or spot lights poised. In this place, the visitor is taken into another game entirely, one where there is no pressing urge, or even curiosity piqued, to take hold of a guidebook to find out whose art is whose, any more than you would go into someone’s house and enquire who made their teapot; the whole (tedious) intellectual approach to art can be, quite frankly, left at the door with your umbrella. And how wonderful, how very in-line with my own viewpoint about what art ‘really is’ because if art doesn’t speak to you in its most natural state, presented bare and in the most ordinary of environments, regardless of ‘who made it’ or ‘what it is worth’, then what is the point?
Suddenly Kettle’s Yard was up there with a very small handful of places I have been to that did this kind of thing far better, for me, than any art gallery – Charleston Farmhouse and the living art of Monet’s garden being amongst them. It’s a subject I touched upon recently, in my review of the film ‘Summer Hours‘, where the family’s collection is given over to the Musée D’Orsay and becomes somewhat sterile compared to when these same objects were the living and even useful pieces of art at the heart of a family home. It is my passionate belief that art is something to be lived with, rather than ‘viewed’ in reverent isolation, injecting depth of soul into a living space and untold pleasure into so many comfortable hours of ‘ordinary’ family life. As I work my way towards presenting even more of my own art within a living space, in preference to a conventional gallery, by means of private views as my first point of sale (and I have always used photography of my work hung in a ‘real’ environment on my website), I now find that I share this vision in common with a man I only tripped upon the day I stepped into his former home at Kettle’s Yard.
The feeling of ‘home’ rather than museum is preserved somewhat by the need to ring a clanking doorbell to gain access, to be greeted by someone waiting to take your coat and your bag. Once in there, the interior of the house presents like a tardis: being four knocked-together cottages with a modern extension, the ground floor retains the low-ceiling and humble proportions of the original dwellings but, wow, once you venture upstairs this amalgam of a house opens up in the most incredible fashion so that you are left wondering how so much space is even possible. This includes a galleried area overlooking the lower floor and many level changes and stairs that take you off on an ever unfurling adventure of white walls displaying the collection of a lifetime. Two grand pianos hint at the music that played such a key part in Ede’s vision and the imperfect walls and domestic trappings work fully with the scheme; even some of the light switches turned into works or art by means of perspex covers revealing an oddly aesthetic mess of screws and coloured wires beneath.
The couple originally intended to purchase a large house but, unable to find anything suitable, took these four cottages on in a dilapidated state and transformed them with the help of an architect, adding the extension in 1970 along with the adjacent gallery that is used for contemporary exhibitions. They opened their home to visitors every weekday afternoon for sixteen years, continuing to do this (and live there) even after donating it all to the University of Cambridge in 1966. In 1973, they retired to Edinburgh and the house has been kept intact and open to the public ever since; striving to keep all the objects on display in a way that gives nod to how Ede himself would have presented them – even down to the colour and shape of the replacement fresh lemon in the bowl, according to one of the curators – though she admitted that even he loved to move and rearrange his displays on a regular basis. For all it has, in effect, become a version of a museum as a result of this hand-over, there is still a sense of it being a real and living place. Having spent two hours there, taking snaps and comfortably settled in various armchairs doing some lightning sketches (well I thought I might as well join in with my daughter’s art assignment…), even closing my eyes for a short while in the warmth of the afternoon sun – I can honestly say I felt right at home.
Put at their ease, the steady flow of other visitors wove from room to room, speaking softly, exclaiming with delight and smiling – there was a lot of smiling going on. A gallery can be a place of great inspiration – yes – if, sometimes, this is primarily to other artists or those aspiring to add to their collection rather than the casual viewer, yet how many people are left cold or unengaged by such a place if neither of these aspirations fit. On leaving Kettle’s Yard, it was hard not to wonder how many ‘ordinary’ visitors go home to find themselves reconsidering the place of art and other such objects of beauty without immediate practical function (driftwood, pebbles, glass bowls, seed heads, paperweights, random finds with interesting texture or pattern…) within their own homes – and that is inspiration indeed!