Visiting Kettle’s Yard was one of the highlights of our recent visit to Cambridge. An art gallery with a difference, it used to be the home of an eccentric Englishman, Jim Ede and his wife Helen. They moved to Cambridge in 1957 and bought four dilapidated cottages on the edge of the town centre, knocking them through to create a single house.
Trained as an artist, Jim had previously been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London and through his work became friends with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth Henry Moore and other leading members of the Avant-garde art scene. Moving into their new home in Cambridge they filled it with works of art they had collected from their friends and other artists. Jim’s mission in life was to spread the word about Modern Art and held “open house” weekday afternoons during term time for students from the University, local artists and anyone else interested to see his collection
In 1966 Jim donated Kettle’s Yard to the University of Cambridge, but stayed on as “honorary curator”. An extension was built which opened in 1970 as a more formal exhibition space and also for chamber concerts.
Today the tradition of the “open house” has been continued. It’s open every day except Monday, but only between 2 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon during the winter and 1.30 until 4.30 pm during the summer. Arriving at the front door, visitors have to pull the bell chord and wait for the door to be opened. We were greeted by one of the very pleasant and enthusiastic ladies (I guess they are volunteers) who introduced us to the house and explained that we were welcome to wander through at will and could sit on any of the chairs, just making sure that we didn’t disturb any of the displays.
It’s very different from a normal art gallery. It’s been left more or less the way it was when Jim and Helen were living there with furniture, books and other items. There are pictures, sculptures and various other objects displayed throughout the building. Paintings by important artists are hung everywhere – including in the bathroom and toilet!
They’re not always displayed at normal eye level. There were some paintings hung low down close to the floor, which could only really be viewed either by kneeling down or by sitting in one of the many chairs scattered around the house.
There are paintings and sculptures by a large number of artists including Ben Nicholson and his first wife, and Winifred, Barbara Hepworth, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, Joan Miro, Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. There’s a large number of works by the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died in 1915 fighting in the First World War when he was only 24. Jim bought almost his entire output in 1927, although he later donated a number of works to the French State and various institutions.
Seated Woman (1914) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
Dancer (1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
Wrestlers (1913) relief by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
The week following our visit, a exhibition devoted to him was due to open in the gallery adjoining the house. It was a pity to miss it.
As well as the works of art there are displays of objects including glass, ceramics and natural objects, including collections of pebbles artistically arranged.
I particularly liked these displays , and I think that the engraving on this large pebble is definitely apt.
I loved wandering around the rooms in the older part of the house – the original five cottages. The extension was more like a gallery space – not surprising as that was what it was designed for. It lacked the character of the older part of the house, but we enjoyed looking at the art.
Jim didn’t have much money and his collection was assembled due to the generosity of his artist friends who sold works to him at a favourable price and even made donations. So quite a lot of the paintings are quite small, and there are quite a few earlier works from Ben Nicholson and some of the other St Ives school – purchased or donated before they made their names. There was a large number of paintings by the naive painter from St Ives, Arthur Wallis, who was discovered and championed by Nicholson and Christopher (Kit) Wood.
Two painting by Arthur Wallis
I became interested in the St Ives school of artists just over 12 months ago and last year spent some time finding out more about them and visiting galleries where their works were on display. So it was good to be able to see such a large number of their works on display. I was also pleased to have the opportunity to see such a comprehensive collection of sculptures and other works by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. I’d first come across him during a visit to the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2009 where there was an exhibition devoted to his life and work.
But it was also good to be able to see work by other artists, some of whom I’d not come across before. There are no labels or information on the pictures and sculptures in the house. This is a deliberate policy intended to allow visitors to look at the art works without prejudice and consequently be able to discover new artists or even enjoy works by artists they they may have previously said they didn’t like.
I’d heard about Winifred Nicholson before the visit, but hadn’t seen much of her work. Kettle’s Yard have ten paintings by her in their collection and several were on display during our visit. They’re mainly landscapes and still lives, painted in bright pastel colours in an impressionistic style. She’s less well known than her first husband, but deserves wider recognition.
Two pictures by Winifred Nicholson – Seascape with dinghy (1926) and Road along the Roman Wall (1926) with a Caritas(1914) by Henri Gaudier-Breska on the table between them
Two artists I discovered during the visit were William Congdon and Italo Valenti. There were several works by both of them on display, so they were clearly favourites of Jim. I‘ll have to do some further research on them both.
Congdon was an American who, after the Second World War, moved to Italy. His paintings are abstract with thick layers of paint which had been applied with a palette knife, and colours are mixed on the canvas rather than the pallet. He wrote:
Use a knife – never a brush that only compromises. A knife constructs – without tricks…. Don’t mix colors – mix ideas, feelings”
William Congdon – The Black City I (New York)
Italo Valenti. was Italian (no surprise with that name!) who specialised in abstract collages. He was introduced to Jim by Ben Nicholson with whom he’d held a joint exhibition in 1963.
Three collages by Italo Valenti
The two hours we spent at Kettle’s Yard just seemed to disappear. There was so much to see. It’s somewhere that would repay regular visits. It’s just a pity it’s so difficult for us to get to Cambridge.
Fortunately Kettle’s Yard have an excellent website with a virtual tour and comprehensive database of the artists and their works. So I’ll have to make do with that for the time being. But that’s not as good as wandering round the real thing. So I’ll have to find an excuse to go back down there again.