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No.20: Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

Issue 49 Jun / Jul 2009

Peter Pritchard of pritchardthemis picks an eccentric gallery in Cambridge.

“This gallery is a real curiosity. I always go to visit when I am up in Cambridge but I can hardly remember what any of the pieces are on display. What really draws me is the fantastical, labyrinthine way the building opens up and reveals itself. You knock on an unremarkable door in an alley to be let into a treasure trove of small rooms that suddenly opens up into a set of spaces that take you completely by surprise. You are encouraged to sit, lolling around, in any of the chairs; to relax, contemplate and enjoy the way the natural light coming in from a skylight picks up a Naum Gabo piece, or to notice the strange light patterns on a wall coming from an out-of-view clerestory window in a part of the building you have yet to discover.  It surprises at every new turn.”

Peter Pritchard



I find myself at a loss at what to say about this choice. Not because it doesn’t deserve its place within Built with Light but because it is such a personal and intimate selection. It is also an excellent reminder that the buildings that fit the title description don’t necessary need to be world renowned and grand in scale. And above all that each and every one should be visited.

Jim and Helen Ede arrived in Cambridge in 1956 in search of a ‘stately home’ to house their large collection of art. Instead they ended up rennovating four derelict terraced cottages beneath the ancient church of St Peter. With the help of architect Roland Aldridge, they were completely remodelled to serve their vision of a light filled home for both themselves and their art collection. For sixteen years they lived in and exhibited at Kettles Yard with Jim Ede keeping ‘open house’ every afternoon of term and personally guiding his visitors around his home to view the collection of art and other ephemera. In 1966 he gave the house and its contents to the University of Cambridge.

Jim had previously been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London and had promoted modernist artists like Picasso and Mondrian before going on to ‘discover’ the St Ives group. Much of the work on display dates from the interwar years but the range extends into the fifties and includes paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, David Jones, Joan Miró and many others along with sculpture by artists including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Paintings and sculpture are displayed alongside with furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects.

The uniqueness of Kettle’s Yard is the informality of the place. Jim Ede thought the measure of good visual art was whether you could live with it and made this part of the working formula of the legacy. “An art gallery or museum, nor . . . simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.” In this sense, it is much more than an art collection, the building and the way in which the art and other objects are displayed is unlike a normal gallery. It retains the characteristics of a real home and visitors are welcome to sit in the chairs, read the books and enjoy the art works.

Kettle’s Yard was originally conceived with students in mind. In 1954 Jim Ede envisaged creating: “a living place where works of art could be enjoyed . . . where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery.” To this end, a large part of the collection is still lent out annually to students, to keep in their rooms for the year.

Jim Ede’s legacy lives on as Kettle’s Yard enjoys an internatonal reputation for its exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. A wide variety of exhibitions are shown every year in addition to housing music performances and lectures.

So how to find this hidden gem: “Head straight over the busy crossroads into steep Castle Street. Pass the Folk Museum immediately on your left and turn down the alleyway signposted ‘Kettles Yard’ on your left after a few yards”. Just ring the bell one afternoon (except Mondays) and ask to look around.



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