Discovering Kettle's Yard: A trove of hidden treasure at the former home of art collector Jim Ede in Cambridge

Ruth Hazard | 20 July 2012
© Kettle's Yard
Kettle’s Yard House is not like other art galleries. Climbing the steps to the cottage that originally belonged to contemporary art collector Jim Ede, there’s little to suggest that this is even a gallery at all.

The house has been preserved as the family left it in the 1970s when they retired to Edinburgh. Jim and Helen had been living in the four-cottage conversion since 1956, over which time they accumulated an extensive collection of 20th century art that remains inside the house today.

Guests must ring the doorbell for entry to the cottage - this was a real home for many years - and even after Ede gave the house to the University in 1966, he continued to live there for a further seven years.

Jim Ede at Kettle's Yard
© Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
Although a personal greeting from Ede is sadly a thing of the past, the museum volunteers are just as welcoming and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the entire collection.

The house rules are laid out; you can sit in the chairs, read books in the library, nose around in the attic and of course, enjoy the incredible array of sculptures, paintings and objects Ede collected throughout his life.

“One of the important factors about Kettle’s Yard is that it’s almost the antithesis of the ordinary art gallery,” explains the gallery's Susie Billar.

“There are no labels or red tape and visitors are encouraged just to relax and absorb the space.”

Ede always believed that art should be shared in an informal environment and operated an open house to students from the University of Cambridge long before the site became a gallery.

Using Joan Miro to convey the importance of balance and Henry Moore to discuss texture, Ede’s tutelage took place over afternoon tea; some guests were even lucky enough to borrow paintings to hang in their rooms during term-time.

Ede’s philosophy lives on at Kettle’s Yard; visitors are free to peruse some of the great works of the 20th century, still set out in his carefully conceived arrangements, and all from the comfort of the same cosy armchairs.

Many of the items were given to Ede by the artists he befriended as curator at the Tate Gallery, including sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Barbara Hepworth, and paintings by Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood.

Ede was facinated with the possibilities natural light has to transform objects
© Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge photo: Paul Allitt
Yet despite the impressive collection the house remains deeply personal to the Ede the family, filled with drawings by their grandchildren, trinkets from their holidays, presents exchanged between Jim and Helen and the shells, bones and stones Ede hoarded in his quest to find the ‘perfect pebble’.

“The way Ede mixed different objects, from great works of art to found objects such as pebbles, makes the whole place as much of a work of art in itself,” says Billar.

She also points out that the skill with which Ede positioned these objects to maximise the possibilities of natural light is often overlooked, but highly important to the way visitors appreciate the collection.

“Ede wrote that you should put all the essential items into a room and then take half of them out. He believed in allowing space for the light.”

In 1970 the house was extended, and later a seperate exhibition gallery was added to the site to showcase new displays of contemporary art.

The space is now being rennovated further, with a coffee shop, education wing and extra archive storage facilities currently taking shape.

This addition will allow Kettle’s Yard to continue Ede’s passion for educating visitors about art, inspiring them to see it as something to be enjoyed as a part of everyday life.

In the meantime, devoting an afternoon to discover this incredible treasure trove of contemporary art is most definitely time well spent.
  • Open 1.30pm-4.30pm, closed Monday, Bank Holiday Mondays 11.30am-5pm. Admission free.

More pictures:

H. Gaudier-Brzeska's 'Caritas' (1913)© Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge photo: Paul Allitt
Joan Miro’s Tic Tic (1927)© Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge photo: Paul Allitt
Jim Ede's bedroom table
© Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge photo: Paul Allitt
The ground floor is home to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s ‘Redstone Dancer’ (1913-14; cast of 1969) and ‘The Wrestlers relief’ (1914, cast of 1965)
© Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge photo: Paul Allitt
The cottage's downstairs dining room has art lurking in every corner
© Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge photo: Paul Allitt

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