Jim Ede and Kettle’s Yard

July 7, 2023 2 Comments

Walking across the river and up the hill to Kettle’s Yard became a regular habit when I was a student.  The afternoon was the time to go.  After you the tugged the bell pull, a lean man of elderly years would come to the door and invite you in straight away.  This was Jim Ede, and Kettle’s Yard was his home.  I soon learned that he treated everyone the same – even if you were a new undergraduate like me, and wet behind the ears.  There was never any question of your paying an entrance fee. You were being invited into a home, not a gallery.

Once inside, the place was yours.  You could wander about and study the objects – pebbles, flowers, shells and feathers, as well as paintings and sculptures – or listen to Jim and his memories of the artists, or sit down and read one of the many art books scattered round the house.   Very soon you were aware that Kettle’s Yard and much of what was in it were Jim’s own invention, and that, with few exceptions, he’d known personally almost all the remarkable artists whose works lived there with him.

After a while I started going, with friends, to the small concerts that Jim and his wife Helen put on in the Kettle’s Yard extension.  These were occasions quite different from the many other musical events you could go to as a student.  The atmosphere was informal and domestic.  You found a perch wherever you could, and sat back to listen to some of the best performers around (I remember Vlado Perlemuter playing Chopin on the Steinway piano, and Amaryllis Fleming playing cello), while gazing at Henri Gaudier’s relief sculpture, Wrestlers or paintings by Ben Nicholson. Jim offered the musicians the same fee as ‘Mr Barenboim and Miss Du Pré’, that is, nothing; they were only too happy to come and play in Jim’s place.

These memories came back to me recently on reading Laura Freeman’s Ways of life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard artists.  The book gives a vivid insight into Jim Ede’s life before he ever hit upon the idea of converting a series of derelict cottages in Cambridge into a modernist gallery/home.

Jim was Welsh.  He was born in Penarth and his mother, Mildred Blanch, was from Newport.   His father, Edward Ede, was a Wesleyan Methodist minister.  Freeman paints a rather grim picture of the two of them – they were Victorian moralists and disciplinarians, with little feeling for creativity and contemporary art – but it seems that they were very tolerant of Jim’s early uncertainties and generous to him when he lacked resources, which was most of the time.  He wanted to become an artist, but realised before long that he lacked the talent to be successful.  Three things happened to him that set the foundations for what followed.  At seventeen, in Edinburgh College of Art, he met Helen Schlapp and fell in love with her almost immediately; they married in 1921 and were only separated at Helen’s death in 1977.  At twenty he enlisted with the South Wales Borderers in 1914 when the Great War broke out.  The experience left lasting scars, but he was lucky to fall ill and be sent home, and then be judged ‘neurasthenic, insomniac and unsuitable for overseas service’.  And at twenty-six he was appointed to the staff of the Tate Gallery.  

He was a lowly assistant in the Gallery’s hierarchy, but almost immediately he began to use his position to get to know contemporary artists and patrons on the London scene.  This despite the fact that he’d had none of the normal networking advantages of the London elites, like a university education or ready-made connections with cliques like Bloomsbury.  He gave talks and published in art magazines, but his most effective methods were personal.  He would write constantly to people he targeted, and rarely took no for an answer.  He invited artists and their supporters to his house in Elm Row for social and cultural evenings.  He travelled to Europe to get to know artists like Brancusi, Miró and Chagall.  When the belongings and archives of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier were ‘dumped’ in the Tate Gallery in 1926, Jim at once saw their worth, and, through some dubious manoeuvring, succeeded in buying them (the result was Jim’s book Savage messiah, published in 1931).

Jim was a poor art bureaucrat – the Tate must have been as tolerant as his parents, and may have been relieved when he left in 1936 – and never claimed to be an academic art historian.  What he did have was an astonishingly sure eye.  Throughout his life he could instinctively recognise objects, made or natural, that gave pleasure and interest to the viewer.

It was always hard for Jim to persuade the hidebound Tate authorities to buy modernist art, but he tried his best, and he also bought works for himself, despite his perennial poverty (the lifestyle he and Helen adopted was frugal in the extreme).  And so, thanks to his persistence, his charm and gift for mixing, and his steadfast support for the artists he valued, he became one the foremost art collectors and authorities on modern art in Britain.  He made lasting and deep friendships with artists, including Christopher Wood, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Barbara Hepworth and David Jones, and with patrons like Helen Sutherland.  I hadn’t realised until reading this book how dependent David Jones was on the hospitality and financial help Jim and Helen gave him, from the mid-1920s to his death in 1974.

Jim and Helen moved for a time to Tangier and then to France, before returning to Britain.  Freeman makes it clear that the idea for Kettle’s Yard didn’t spring from nowhere.  In one of his American trips, to raise funds through giving talks, Jim admired the Barnes Foundation’s mix of gallery, home, concerts and talks.  Concerts had been part of the hospitality in Elm Row.  But in Britain, at least, Kettle’s Yard, the essence of which Jim first outlined in a letter to David Jones in 1956, was to be a new departure: not a gallery, but a homely place full of things of beauty, that could be thrown open, without charge, to anyone who was interested enough to turn up.  It was an ambitious vision.  Only someone of Jim Ede’s persistence could have realised it.  The converted cottages were opened in 1958, and the extension, designed by Leslie Martin, in 1970, the year I first discovered Kettle’s Yard.  Today the house is more of a museum and gallery than a private home, of course.  The house is still open free to students, though most others have to pay.

Ways of life is a thing of beauty itself.  You can easily imagine Jim Ede receiving the book with a smile and giving it pride of place in one of his rooms in Kettle’s Yard.  Cover design, paper, font, illustrations, binding – all of them combine to make reading the book a pleasure.  Personally, I’d have preferred the illustrations of Kettle’s Yard objects to be larger, at the expense of the text.  The details of what Jim and Helen had for tea or the exact itinerary of the US trips can be overpowering at times.  I may be imagining this, but it seems to me that Laura Freeman writes in a rather Edeian style. But she certainly succeeds in immersing you in the life and times of Jim Ede – someone who deserves to be celebrated for adding much to the beauty and enjoyment of the world.

Comments (2)

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  1. Kate Hardy says:

    Kettle’s yard is such a lovely place. Sad that there’s now an entrance fee if £10.50 for the house. But at least most students will be able to visit often, as it’s still free for under 25s

    • Andrew Green says:

      Yes, I’m not sure Jim would have approved of the charge: he was adamant that great art was not just for the well-off.

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