Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge: Calming, Quirky and Completely Capitvating

Above: Exterior View, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, Photo: Paul Allitt

There aren’t many museums where you ring the front door ball to gain entry – but isn’t like most museums. It began life as a home and that is what it has remained, albeit one no longer lived in. Officially it is Cambridge University’s Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery but that title gives a false grandeur to the unique atmosphere of an unassuming location on the outskirts of town which makes a virtue out of its unconventional intimacy. The standard Cambridge tourist trail of King’s Parade, The Backs and The Fitzwilliam Museum offers plenty for the visitor but it is well worth taking the ten-minute stroll past Magdelene College. In Kettle’s Yard you will find something completely different and surprisingly life-affirming.

View through to Helen Ede’s sitting room, Kettles Yard, University of Cambridge.

In 1956 Jim and Helen Ede converted four slum cottages in Cambridge to make a home for themselves and their art collection. Ede, who trained at the Slade School of Art, had been a curator at the Tate Gallery and was a friend and supporter of British modernists like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. He also had a good eye, securing much of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s work after his death in the First World War and before he was widely appreciated. The Edes began by giving personal tours of their collection to students (who can still, amazingly, borrow works), before gifting the house to the university in 1966. The original cottages were expanded before the couple finally moved out in 1973, to create a more spacious, modernist area for displaying larger works and holding concerts. After a major project in the 2010s, there is now a new entrance foyer, temporary exhibitions gallery, shop and café. The original interiors, however, remain just as Jim and Helen left them.

The first room you enter is a combined sitting and dining room. White walls, enlarged windows, bare floorboards and exposed brick create a minimalist backdrop to the carefully curated clutter which characterizes the whole house. The Edes travelled widely, they lived in France and Morocco, and they collected whatever took their fancy, from eighteenth century china, antique glass and Buddhist statues to found objects like pebbles and a piece of charred wood which resembles a Medieval saint. It is the way these disparate objects are placed together which makes the place so mesmerizing – low hung paintings, cleverly created shadows and site lines, idiosyncratic juxtapositions of form and colour. A single lemon on a pewter plate resonates against a Miro painting on the wall. A vase of flowers mirrors still lifes and porcelain decoration. A shell fragment takes on a rococo elegance alongside glass goblets.

Jim Ede’s Bedroom, table display including pebble spiral and Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Torpedo Fish, (1914). Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge.

You pass through an almost monastic bedroom, a spiral of water-smoothed pebbles on a low table, a tiny geometric abstraction and cool, blue seascapes creating a meditative calm – it is no surprise to learn that Jim Ede was interested in Buddhism. Slightly guiltily, you squeeze into a tiny bathroom dominated by big, bold art. Upstairs the mood shifts slightly: Helen Ede’s bedroom was originally a private space, now home to changing displays from the collection. At present, the whole curation is cleverly inspired by the cover of a Virginia Woolf novel which lies on the table. Her sitting room feels more open, dominated by the sleek blackness of the grand piano - she loved music - which acts as the perfect mirrored resting place to Constantin Brancusi’s abstracted head of Prometheus. Then up again to the slanting eaves of the attic which houses the drawings and small-scale sculptures of the Gaudier-Brzeska collection.

Chrisopher Wood, Self Portrait, (1927), Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jan Arkesteijn (Wikimedia Commons)

The 1970 extension includes the Edes’ library, still updated and available for visitors to use and another grand piano which is now regularly played during term-time concerts. Designed as a display area, it is lit from above, and partially double-height, allowing for the hang of larger works, like the Self Portrait by Christopher Wood, another of the artists championed by Ede. Despite the change in style, the extension retains the lived-in intimacy of the older part of the house: I am particularly fond of a little alcove featuring an almost altar-like display topped by a triptych of black and white, torn paper collages by Italian artist Italo Valenti. He is just one of the artists I discovered through visiting – Kettle’s Yard gives a lot of love to artists who are crowded out of mainstream galleries.

Extension, upstairs, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge.

Perhaps my favorite spot is the passage which links the old cottage with the extension. A first alcove glows green though a window conservatory full of house plants in front of which hangs Gregorio Vardanega’s Disc refracting and reflecting the light. In a second, light floods through another full-length arched window into a little seating area, where you could happily spend hours with a book and a sense of peace (you can in fact sit on the furniture). It’s a small space but there is so much to look at: Gaudier-Brzeska sculptures including Dancer, subdued and scratchy William Congden abstractions, a Christopher Wood landscape, all wonderful in themselves but even better in combination.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Dancer, (bronze, cast from 1913 plaster original)
PHOTOGRAPH BY Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

As well as the house, Kettle’s Yard runs a program of temporary exhibitions in its new galleries. Varied and often unexpected these have recently included Lucy Rie’s pottery, Palestinian textiles and Ai Weiwei – this summer will see abstract expressionist works by Megan Rooney. Unusually these exhibitions are free, whereas an entry charge has recently been applied to the house. The entry fee is one of a number of barriers to visiting which are worth bearing in mind: it is not an accessible environment with small spaces and steep stairs, visitors are required to leave all bags in reception and you have to book timed entry slots. Visits are now guided so the opportunity for lingering - and this is the sort of place where you long to linger – is much less than it was. Having said that, it is also the sort of place where you need a guide, as nothing is labelled, and the volunteers I’ve met are very enthusiastic and well-informed, and appreciate that you want to take your time.

The museum is closed on Mondays.

Entry is £10.50 and booking in advance is recommended.

Although a short walk from the centre of town, the museum is a long way from the station and Cambridge is not a car-friendly place. Details of buses, parking etc can be found on the website.

If you can’t easily get to Cambridge, these is an excellent recently published biography Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman.

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Catriona Miller

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.