When I first visited Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, I was shown around by Jim Ede, its founder and creator. This wasn’t an unusual event in the 1970s. I was an undergraduate, and in those days Ede — elderly, elegant and almost translucently ascetic — showed round anyone who rang his doorbell. It was rather as if Henry Clay Frick had given you a tour of his pied-à-terre on Fifth Avenue, or Sir Richard Wallace walked you through his collection. Except, of course, that they wouldn’t have done that — and Kettle’s Yard, as Ede (1895–1990) mused in a conversation with the artist John Goto, isn’t really a collection, ‘it’s a number of things perhaps’.
In fact, it is much more than just a collection. Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge — which reopens this week after an £11 million extension and refurbishment — is a unique combination of house, art gallery and what might now be called ‘installation’. It contains some remarkable pictures and sculpture, but is also a work of art in itself — a creation you can walk around and which feels like a private home.
Ede and his wife Helen lived in this place, made up of four old cottages, after they moved to Cambridge in the mid-1950s. Ede was already over 60 by then, with a distinguished career as a curator. One day in the 1920s, more or less the entire life’s work of a half-forgotten sculptor named Henri Gaudier-Brzeska arrived in his office at the Tate Gallery. The nation didn’t want to buy it, so he bought it himself. By the time he arrived in Cambridge, Ede had amassed many other works — by his friend Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, the Cornish seaman Alfred Wallis particularly.
He set about arranging them in the rambling Cambridge house. The result, with its white walls, bare woodwork and ample light, has a good deal in common with the artists’ houses of St Ives — Patrick Heron’s Eagles Nest, for example. But it is unique in its sense of harmony and stillness — two words that Ede chose to describe what he was doing (the latter meaning ‘to be attentive, to take in, to search’ and also just to be there and know).
He made an arrangement in which every item has its place. The 76 spherical pebbles laid in a spiral on a round table near a downstairs window matter just as much as the small bronze sculpture by Brancusi resting on the piano upstairs. So does the battered antique china Ede found one day in a shop, the chairs and tables, some feathers in a vase.
Shortly after visitors came through the door, Ede would draw attention to his little Miró, ‘Tic Tic’ (1927). This, he wrote, was an opportunity to tell undergraduates about ‘the importance of balance’. ‘If,’ he went on, ‘I put my finger over the spot at the top right, all the rest of the picture slid into the left-hand bottom corner.’ Take out other small round forms, and the picture became horizontal or everything ‘flew to the edges’. The point was underlined by a lemon, exactly positioned in the pewter plate nearby (and still regularly replaced), echoing an oval yellow form in the Miró. ‘If I had another name for god,’ Ede mused, ‘I think it would be balance, for with perfect balance all would be well.’
The point about Kettle’s Yard is that it is a completed whole. The most that has been added to the house is an occasional temporary ‘intervention’, such as the delicate white marks, like fingerprints, that Cornelia Parker has made on a window.
Over the years, however, the institution has spread outwards, becoming Cambridge’s contemporary art gallery and engulfing a row of nearby shops. Now the architect Jamie Fobert has deftly expanded the existing buildings still further, a tricky business since the site is tightly confined by a busy street.
The exhibition galleries, though not much larger, are now better arranged. But Actions, the underwhelming show that inaugurates them, is a heterogeneous array of this and that — photographs, films, old, new. It lacks Ede’s virtue of harmony — and indeed coherence — though there are some good things scattered about, including paintings by Vicken Parsons and Caroline Walker.
The alterations have made Kettle’s Yard more like a normal museum, with a spacious shop, café and education area, all of which were doubtless necessary. But the things that make it special are still the pebbles, the lemon, and the way that Brancusi is positioned on the piano.