A Visit to Kettle's Yard

Sarah Footman 23 September 2007

The first thing that might strike a visitor to Kettle’s Yard is the sense of homeliness and domesticity which this ordinary-looking country cottage gives out. Compared to England’s grandest mansions and stately homes, the house at Kettle’s Yard is small, cosy, and may seem a little obscure to include in a list of ‘notable houses’. Yet it is precisely the cosy atmosphere which gives this particular house its charm, beauty and originality.

It was founded by H.S. ‘Jim’ Ede, who came to Cambridge with his wife Helen in 1956 in search of a home where Jim could share his love of art, particularly with young people, in an environment which would be less dry and intimidating than a public gallery or museum. He certainly welcomed the informal approach. He and his wife lived at Kettle’s Yard for sixteen years, with Jim holding an open house in the afternoon where visitors would ‘find a home and a welcome, a refuge of peace and order, of the visual arts and of music’. As a public house it is therefore unconventional, for the interest at Kettle’s Yard lies not in its ancestral ownership (of which there appears to be none), nor in its architectural importance, but rather in the sense of life which fills its large, airy spaces, and its way of providing an understanding of the experiences of a 20th-century man through his choice and portrayal of the visual arts.

A certain warmth and personable appeal thus pervades the house, due in part to its welcoming, informal attitude to visitors, and particularly to students, but also because the paintings, sculptures and ceramics on display are so carefully and lovingly placed. There is randomness, because the choice of art is varied and consists predominantly of ornaments related to nature, like stone formations and flower arrangements, which on first glance are situated at random points. But look closer and you will experience the aesthetic balance which Ede wanted to achieve; objects in paintings correspond directly to ornaments on tables, for example, and are in careful alignment with each other. There is simplicity and ease, blended with subtlety and thoughtfulness, and so two realities poignantly and naturally coincide: that of the natural domesticity of two human beings living together, and that of the transcendent life created through art. Think of the house in this way, and Jim Ede’s description of Kettles Yard as a ‘continuing way of life’ makes sense.

Next door to the house is Kettle’s Yard Gallery, which was opened in 1970 and presents a constantly changing programme of contemporary and modern art. This is widely advertised and each exhibition is accompanied by a lively programme of lectures, workshops and discussion groups, all of which welcome students. From 29 September to 18 November the Swedish artist Henrik Hakansson will make his first solo show in a public gallery at Kettle’s Yard. An artist whose prime interest lies in the complexities of our relationship with the natural world, his exhibition will focus on recent works about birds and his one-day symposium will delve into the cultural and ecological contexts of our conflicted relationship with nature. Kettle’s Yard also organises a series of professional chamber music concerts in the house during University terms, which students can join for only £10 a term,or £25 a year. In addition, Friday lunchtime recitals are given by student musicians from 13:10-13:50; admission is free. Kettle’s Yard gives many established or up-and-coming artists the opportunity to live and work in Cambridge, hold an exhibition in the gallery and meet with students to discuss their work.

Both Kettle’s Yard house and gallery are well worth a visit, and since admission is free there’s really no excuse not to go.

Situated between Northampton Street and Castle Street, opening times for the house are Tuesday to Sunday, 14:00-16:00, (extended to 13:30-16.30 in summer), and for the gallery the opening times are Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30-17:00.

Sarah Footman