Places for Sculpture: Kettle's Yard

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 31, 2019 9:13PM

The bell pull at Kettle’s Yard.

The bell pull at Kettle’s Yard is the first clue to the place: a hefty rope with a thick knot at the end that suspends a weathered wooden disc, like a giant bead on a string. It’s unclear if the wooden object was made or found, but it is clear it was chosen. The tour guide will ask someone to volunteer to ring the bell. Pulling it, a melodious gong sounds, and then there’s the tap-tap of quick footsteps as someone comes to open the door. You step up into a quiet room: whitewashed and well-lit, a tall and narrow brick fireplace at the center. To the right, a long wooden table is tucked into an alcove. To the left, a pair of chairs rest in the angles of a bay window. And everywhere your eyes go, there is the spirit of the bell pull: considered objects that radiate intention. Cockle shells are lined up like small sculptures on a window ledge. Paintings of flowers and ships are hung at knee height, the better to be seen as you rest in an armchair with a curious basket-like back. Cut-glass decanters perch on a plinth-like cider press screw, with a small, deep-blue painting by Joan Miró hanging just above; a lemon resting on a pewter platter echoes the small dab of yellow in the painting. Everything here is meant to be noticed, to be thought about, to be enjoyed.

In the sitting room, a silver pitcher, three shells, and a round stone perch on the mantel in front of Ship in Harbour (1928), a small work by Christopher Wood.

Two shells rest on a cake plate pedestal on a sideboard in the lower-level addition. Above a corner of Christopher Wood’s painting, Building the Boat, Tréboul (1930), is visible.

Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede, who gave the property and everything in it to the University of Cambridge, England, in 1966. In the mid-1950s, the Edes had returned to England after 20 years abroad in Morocco and France, and Jim Ede wanted to find a “stately home” near a university, where they could live and share their personal art collection with students and the community through casual afternoon open houses and chamber music concerts. As he described it, it was not to be a museum or a gallery, but a place “of lived-in beauty, each room an atmosphere of quiet and simple charm.” Great houses were scarce, but the Edes did find a cluster of four derelict cottages in Cambridge; this became Kettle’s Yard. They renovated and began installing Jim Ede’s collection —as he described it, “stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture.” As Assistant Keeper at the National Gallery of British Art (later The Tate), Ede befriended many artists, including Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, and David Jones. The house is full of their paintings and many others, including an extraordinary assortment of pieces by the self-taught artist Alfred Wallis, and the sculpture collection includes pieces by Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, George Kennethson, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Gregorio Vardanega’s plexiglass Disc (1960) is perfectly positioned to catch the plant-filtered light in the small pass-through conservatory. A cheery row of blue china platters are arrayed over the doorway, drawing the eye to Ben Nicholson’s small painting 1944 (mugs) and William Staite Murray’s large and elegant Jar (The Heron), which is half-hidden by plants.

Elizabeth Vellacott’s Portrait of Gwen Raverat (1954) hangs below John Blackburn’s Lead relief (c. 1963) and Michael Pine’s Construction (1955). A round stone peeks from the corner.

But the magic of Kettle’s Yard doesn’t come from the names on the art; it comes from the way they are arranged in the home as a whole. Nothing is labeled, so as you wander through the house, spiraling from small cottage rooms into progressively airier spaces, ending in the 1970 addition designed by Leslie Martin and David Owers, the experience is about what catches your eye. Small brass and jade circles resting on top of a bookcase that look like fittings for some sort of wonderful telescope were made by Richard Pousette-Dart. A large, rough-hewn angel resting under the stairs turns out to be a found piece of burned willow. Collections of pebbles (Jim Ede: “pebbles are as important as anything else”) are presented with drama and humor: spiraled on a tabletop or piled into a bowl by Zoë Ellison, resting in quiet beauty beside, of all things, a toilet, while seashells are gathered like pearlescent treasures on lustrous glass cake plates. A charming painting behind the bathroom door turns out to be by the Edes’s granddaughter Jane, while a glass-fronted cabinet holds an insect-patterned plate and a squat serpentine duck by Gaudier-Brzeska. A mesmerizing convex disc of plexiglass by Gregorio Vardanega hangs in front of a lush collection of houseplants, catching light and greenness, while rows of blue-and-white china platters primly march along shelves overhead. The small collections of china throughout are unexpectedly delightful, softening the austerity that can chill an art-filled room.

A collection of ordinary plates form an orderly line above two collages by Italo Valenti (Nr. 287; Giardino a mezzogiorno; Jardin a midi, 1964, and Nr. 286, Pietra, Pierre, 1964). Lucy Rie’s stoneware Conical Bowl (1971) rests on the table alongside glass fishing floats. (No provenance given in the guidebook for the striking jug in the corner; one can only wonder where the Edes picked it up.)

This sense of thoughtful democracy—of accessibility, of open mingling—guides every aspect of Kettle’s Yard, not only the collection. Jim Ede felt strongly that visitors were just as important as the collection—that their experiences with the objects created new meanings and insights and enhanced the value to all—and he and Helen worked to make Kettle’s Yard welcoming, keeping weekday afternoon open houses where people were free to stop by, and by holding small concerts around the home’s pianos. In a note to a student in 1964, Jim Ede said, “Do come in as often as you like—the place is only alive when used.”

That generosity animated the Edes’s time at Kettle’s Yard and continues today: Admission is free, though tours of the house require timed tickets. And in February 2018, a new gallery space designed by Jaime Forbert opened. Discreetly tucked alongside the house, it gives Kettle’s Yard a venue for temporary installations that complement the collection, including a recent show by Antony Gormley that featured long, narrow steel strips suspended across the entire gallery space, creating the illusion of solid planes; a box of light mimicking infinity; and a human form made of pixelated metal pieces, apparently lost in lonely thought. The new annex also provides more space for community programming, including many events and workshops for local families and children. And Kettle’s Yard continues a music program started by Jim Ede—a concert series that features both new music and chamber music and taking advantage of the home’s two pianos.

Three modern Aborigine flints, a crystal candlestick, and a glimpse of David Jones’s watercolor, Flora in Calix-Light (1950).

Small groupings of pebbles and rocks can be found throughout the house. Here, a hag stone has pride of place. (In folk and fairy tales, looking through one can reveal hidden worlds.)

It’s wonderful to imagine the party that opened the 1970 Martin-Owers addition: friends and guests and artists sitting around the Steinway piano in a light-filled space, listening as music by Jacqueline du Pr. and Daniel Barenboim filled the air, while the Edes held friendly court. The Edes would not have many more years in the house; by then, both were in their 70s, and Helen’s health was presenting increasing challenges. They left Kettle’s Yard in 1973, but they realized their goal: More than 40 years on, their home remains open and welcome, a free but rich lesson in the possibilities of seeing and living, of the ways we can choose to shape the spaces around us with works of art, loved things, beautiful music, and the odd handful of pebbles.

The Dancer Room takes its name from the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska piece on the table. It’s a posthumous 1967 cast of a 1913 work by the artist.

Written by Stephanie Madewell

Nasher Sculpture Center