Part Six: from Whitestone to Kettle's Yard
In April 1952, after almost sixteen years, Helen and Jim Ede left Tangier for France. Their new home and project, Les Charlottières, was a rambling and dilapidated sixteenth-century farmhouse in the Loire Valley near Blois, a world away from the clean modernism of Whitestone.
However, France was only to be a brief stopover on the journey back home. By 1954, the Edes were looking to sell Les Charlottières and settle somewhere in England. Jim entertained the idea of becoming a live-in caretaker of a National Trust property, but was ultimately put off at the thought of being unable to arrange the place to suit his aesthetics. He wrote of his plans in a letter to his friend, the artist-poet David Jones:
‘...it would be very interesting to be lent a great house on the verge of a city or a place of beauty in a town (Cambridge I have in mind) and make it all that I could of lived in beauty, each room an atmosphere of quiet and simple charm, and open to the public (in Cambridge students especially) and for such a living creation, I would give all that I have in pictures and lovely objects…’1
It was with this in mind that the Edes eventually arrived at Kettle’s Yard: not quite the ‘great house’ of Jim’s imagination, but a group of four diminutive tumbledown cottages, to the north of Cambridge's centre, that were destined for demolition. They purchased the site in 1956 and quickly set about restoring and altering the nineteenth-century cottages: knocking through walls, enlarging windows to introduce natural light, and once again furnishing each space with artworks, furniture and objects according to Jim’s unwavering principles of beauty, harmony and balance.
Kettle’s Yard was the culmination of a series of remarkable houses and schemes. If the early years living in Hampstead in the 1920s and ‘30s had introduced them to a world of avant-garde artists and ideas – both through Jim’s work at the Tate and the constant stream of dinner guests at No. 1 Elm Row – it was the subsequent Tangier years that cemented an idealistic vision of art’s potential to enrich and educate. Like both Whitestone and 1 Elm Row, Kettle's Yard was, above all, to be a place for conversation and social interaction alongside art and music. And, just as the Edes had welcomed young servicemen into their Tangier home, Kettle’s Yard was primarily conceived with young people in mind. There, Ede sought to create ‘a living place where works of art would be enjoyed, inherent to the domestic setting, where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery’.2 Every afternoon, 'including Sundays', undergraduates could ring the doorbell to be offered tea and a personal tour of the art and objects within. Soon, Ede was lending pictures from his own collection for students to hang in their college rooms, so that they might experience more directly his belief in the importance of living with art.
While there are close parallels between the Edes’ scheme for servicemen at Whitestone and the 'open house' ethos of Kettle’s Yard, the physical legacy of the Tangier years is perhaps less immediately evident. Yet, amidst the European modernist artworks, antique English furniture and careful arrangements of pebbles and shells, traces of the Edes’ Moroccan sojourn can be found at almost every turn. Some objects came directly from Tangier and its surroundings; others were acquired through the numerous friendships and connections forged during those years (Ede had a special knack for adopting and giving new life to other people’s cast-offs). Perhaps these vestiges of life in Tangier would have been more apparent to visitors of the early Kettle’s Yard, accompanied through the space by Jim Ede’s personal commentary. Ede was enthralled by the associations and past lives of objects – their previous owners, or the unusual circumstances of their acquisition – and relished the opportunity to recount these anecdotes to visitors. When he and Helen eventually left Cambridge for Edinburgh in 1973, Ede meticulously compiled a series of ‘Notes on the Inventory’ in the hope that these precious details and anecdotes, so important in Ede’s appreciation of objects, might be preserved. We learn, for instance, that the tall cider screw, which stands beneath a small Miró painting in the cottage sitting room, was ‘purchased in Tangier for £1 at sale of effects of two lady artists from Normandy’.3 Later, Ede would incorporate many of these details into A Way of Life, his remarkable attempt to capture Kettle’s Yard in book form, guiding the reader on a meandering tour of the house as well as its contents, history and ideas.
Ede’s records reveal just how many objects were acquired in Morocco and transported to England via France. Stepping through the front door of the Kettle’s Yard House into the small, flagstone-floored entrance hall, one of the very first objects we encounter is a wrought iron chair. Its curved back and pierced seat are fairly unremarkable, a familiar pattern seen in cafés and parks throughout France. Yet, Ede’s notes tell us that this chair came not from France, but Tangier, presumably originating from one of the many French-style cafés (such as the renowned Gran Café de Paris) that sprung up during the city’s years as an ‘International Zone’ from 1923 to 1956. The chair is instantly recognisable in photographs of Whitestone. Placed beneath Ben Nicholson’s 1933 (musical instruments), its balloon-shaped back and elegant curlicues echo the curvaceous forms of Nicholson’s guitar and cello. Tucked beneath the spiral staircase at Kettle’s Yard – to be noticed, not used – the chair’s presence brings to mind the atmosphere of relaxed sociability so important to Ede’s vision for Kettle’s Yard, inspired by life at Whitestone.
Moving into the sitting room, where Ede would sit to receive daily visitors, we find yet more objects that made the lengthy voyage from Tangier to Cambridge. A low, round table, characteristically arranged with pebbles and a glass fisherman’s float, was constructed from an upturned iron stand originally made to hold large oil-filled amphorae, which Jim had found in the garden at Whitestone. A few feet away, a decorated earthenware jar from Fez rests informally against the foot of an oak bureau, alongside Christopher Wood’s painting Flowers, one of the many artworks Ede hung or propped at low level.
The sitting room at Kettle's Yard
The sitting room at Kettle's Yard
At the dining table nearby, a striped Berber woman's cloak made by the Ayt Yaza of Morocco covers one of the two wooden benches, while a pair of tall brass candlesticks, bought by Ede in the cities of Taroudant and Mazagan (now El Jadida), would have illuminated the small dining nook. Reflecting on these candlesticks in A Way of Life, Ede finds himself transported once again to Morocco, where he and Helen heard 'the muezzin calling the Faithful to prayer in the midst of night, from a mosque outside our bedroom [...] the muezzin had to swallow large portions of butter to lubricate his throat.' 4
Further objects and anecdotes can be found upstairs: a tall amphora made in Safi (or Asfi) on Morocco’s west coast leans elegantly against the banister of the spiral staircase. Ede writes, 'there were 5 but I was travelling with Lady Scott who thought it must be full of disease (besides her car was over full) and I only got permission by wrapping it in a mackintosh sheet and sitting in front with the chauffeur. ... It was badly broken in France but well mended by the Louvre for £5.' 5
Such evocative, romanticised descriptions reveal something of Ede's approach to these objects. Just as scores of Europeans and Americans had flocked to Tangier to play out their exotic fantasies during these decades,6 Ede seems to have been drawn to objects not only for their aesthetic appeal, but also for the way they introduced an atmosphere of the unusual and 'exotic' to his home. This atmosphere was achieved in other ways too – through the sense of smell – in the pot-pourri distributed throughout the House. Ede concocted his own formula, which specified a number of fragrant ingredients from ‘the East’:
‘any strong strange blunt (not sweet) perfume I could find (travellers from the East bringing sandalwood, etc.) – also a few handfuls of incense from various monasteries here or in the East – lots of lavender plucked + dried – and when all this assembled quite a decent helping of Cognac...’ 7
Ede was by no means alone in this approach. For centuries, objects from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia – the so-called 'Orient' – had been collected and displayed in the homes of the wealthy and fashionable, positioned (and often wholly decontextualised) amongst European artworks and furnishings as a marker of bohemian, cosmopolitan sophistication. Frederic Leighton, doyen of the Aesthetic Movement, installed an entire 'Arab Hall' at his Kensington residence, while the Bloomsbury group favoured a subtler approach at Charleston, dispersing miscellaneous objects from China, India and Africa amongst their own artworks and designs. Ede himself often cited the influence of the Philadelphia house and collection of Albert C. Barnes (who he had met in the US), with its juxtaposition of European 19th and 20th-century artworks, vernacular furniture and African sculpture, as well as its strong educational mission.
The Tangier years were formative in other ways too. Looking back on this period, Ede wrote, 'we enjoyed making a garden along a ridge of highland and using our home as a holiday place for soldiers cooped up in Gibraltar. Here from the immense stretches of land and sea I learnt much about light.'8
Ede had already begun to formulate many of his ideas about domestic interiors, particularly the importance of light and space, which would reach their zenith at Kettle's Yard. In a 1931 BBC radio broadcast titled 'A Room to Live In', he described emptying a room of all its contents and allowing just the light to furnish the space. Yet the light in Morocco seems to have made an especially deep impression. Whitestone, designed by Ede himself, was a chance to put these ideas into practice, creating tall French doors and airy 'sky-filled' rooms with views across the landscape. At Kettle's Yard, the Edes went to similarly great lengths to flood the small cottages with natural light, constructing large bay windows as well as two conservatories for houseplants on the first floor.
Photographs of Whitestone also show Ede beginning to devise some of the object relationships and arrangements that would find their permanent home at Kettle's Yard. Two pale pink broken shells, picked up on a beach in Ceuta, were carefully positioned on the mantlepiece, their upright forms ('like ships in sail') echoing Christopher Wood's seascape, Le Phare, above. At Kettle's Yard Ede replicated this arrangement, the shells once again arranged on the sitting room mantlepiece near to Wood's sailing ships.
We might even detect the continuing influence of Whitestone in Ede’s decision to commission a modern extension to Kettle’s Yard. Designed by Leslie Martin and David Owers, and completed in 1970 (just three years before the Edes left Cambridge), the extension presents a dramatic contrast to the intimate domesticity of the original cottages. Yet many aspects of its architecture – clean, geometric volumes, spacious interiors, whitewashed walls and harnessing of natural light – echo the modernist design that Ede chose for Whitestone. Even the long white divan sofa (in fact two mattresses pushed together) had its original incarnation at Whitestone, where servicemen would sit and read or listen to music on the gramophone.
Whitestone may be a house lost to time, but its presence endures – glimpsed not just in writings and photographs, but in the objects, arrangements and stories that make up Kettle’s Yard and, indeed, in the spirit of Kettle's Yard itself.
'In looking back over these last two years I feel that we have had a most privileged experience, & it is for this reason that I have collected together these hasty notes which may show to others what fun and companionship they can have by using their homes in a similar fashion...' 9
1 Letter from Jim Ede to David Jones, 31 January 1956. Kettle's Yard Archive.
2 Ede, foreword to the Kettle's Yard Handlist, 1970.
3 Ede, Notes on the Inventory, 1974. Kettle's Yard Archive.
4 Ede, A Way of Life, 1984, p. 44.
5 Ede, Notes on the Inventory.
6 Perhaps the most famous example of this was American heiress Barbara Hutton. In 1946 Hutton purchased a palace in the Kasbah, where she became notorious for throwing extravagant parties featuring camels, snake charmers and belly dancers.
7 Letter from Jim Ede to Jeremy Lewison, 9 August 1979. Kettle's Yard Archive.
8 Ede, A Way of Life, p. 19.
9 Ede, Variations on a Week-End Theme, 1946-7. Kettle's Yard Archive.
In his introduction to A Way of Life Alan Bowness noted that the twenty years between Jim Ede leaving the Tate Gallery and opening Kettle’s Yard in 1957 were ‘largely wasted and unrewarding’.1 While Ede did not take up another full-time post, and paused acquiring artworks, we now know that he was as active as ever in other ways during this period. His activities, experiences and relationships, especially in the US and in Tangier, were to have a profound influence on the nature of Kettle’s Yard, not only its contents but its ethos.
While based in Tangier, Ede undertook three astonishingly energetic lecture tours in towns and cities across America, with further tours when the Edes were living in the States from 1940-43. Jim Ede had first visited America in 1931, as a Tate curator, and was well connected. He knew, for example, Alfred J. Barr, the first Director of the Museum of Modern Art. Ede’s thoughtful lectures on art, that encompassed both historic and modern works and focused on how to look at paintings, were generally well received and led to important meetings and relationships, notably with artists William Congdon and Richard Pousette-Dart. Ede was to exchange letters with both over many decades. Paintings by Congdon now offset the white walls of Kettle’s Yard with their moody hues and subtle evocations of buildings, space and light. Having met Pousette-Dart on arrival in New York in 1940, Ede quickly became a trusted friend and a sounding board for the artist’s ideas as he emerged as one of a remarkable new generation that became known as the Abstract Expressionists.2
Once the Edes returned to Tangier after the war, they immediately started planning to host weekend visits to Whitestone by British servicemen in Gibraltar. After five years on the road in the US and later in England, their new ‘scheme’ had the great advantage of not requiring travel.3 While the many convivial meals at Whitestone undoubtedly continued something of the Edes’ sociability when living in Hampstead in the 1920s and 30s, the concept was also distinct. The Edes were not inviting their friends or those within their artistic milieu, but servicemen they had never met. However, as Jim Ede wrote, ‘It is our intention to give the serviceman exactly what we would give to any of our personal friends; to give him the best we have’.4 The Edes’ generosity and idealism shines through Jim Ede’s ‘log’ recording the many visits. Yet there is also a sense at times of displacement, of living in another country a long way from their friends and their children:
Lord Tedder’s plane flew past this morning and waggled its wings at us. Michael, the pilot, said he would pass with the cereal and he did, for I was just bringing in the porridge to our guests.
A lovely sunny morning and soon we will leave for the beach. I couldn’t keep back my tears at the sight of the plane; the clear morning, its steady flight, England, and Helen and I waving to it from our Terrace, an exile in Paradise perhaps… surely the title for a book’.
‘Variations on a Weekend Theme’ (Jim Ede 1946-7)
While inviting ordinary servicemen to stay every weekend was a highly unusual activity for expats, the Edes nevertheless conformed and participated in a colonial setting, characterised by ingrained inequality and racism. Jim Ede’s writings suggest that the Edes accepted the status quo and were not critical of the situation, despite a prominent nationalist movement.5 Also notable by its omission is any evidence of interest by the Edes in contemporary Moroccan art or culture. And while Jim continued his daily supportive correspondence with artists he knew in England and the US, he appears not to have attempted to meet or encourage Moroccan artists.
In his writings and letters, there is much to suggest that Jim Ede always felt like an outsider, and was at his most relaxed in the company of artists with their often unconventional lifestyles, or meeting new people from different walks of life, such as the servicemen. Yet, at the same time, and notably in Tangier, Ede seems to exhibit a counter need: to be an ‘insider’, with the security of being part of the establishment, just as he had been as an officer in the British army, with its rigid social codes, during the First World War.
Nevertheless, the 1946/7 scheme remains remarkable and inspiring. In many ways, Whitestone in these years can be seen as the model for Jim Ede’s vision for Kettle’s Yard. The value Jim and Helen Ede placed on enabling people to appreciate, experience and live with art in the context of a beautiful and relaxed home continues to be at the heart of our mission today.