Tangier Days

The Edes in Morocco
1936 – 1952

Jim and Helen Ede with a group of servicemen, c. 1946

Jim and Helen Ede with a group of servicemen, c. 1946

This is the introduction to a series exploring the years Jim and Helen Ede spent living in Tangier, Morocco, from 1936 to 1952. It includes a selection from Jim Ede's writings.


Introduction

Between 1936 and 1952, except for the years of war, we lived in Tangier where 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.

– 'A Way of Life', Jim Ede, 1984

When I became Director of Kettle’s Yard in 2011, I began to immerse myself in the life of Jim Ede, reading both published accounts and documents in our archive. I read ‘A Way of Life’, Ede’s wonderful, meandering story of Kettle’s Yard in book form, full of his thoughts on art, artists and nature. I quickly realised that Kettle’s Yard, created in 1957, was the summation of a lifetime of friendships, experiences (including the trenches of Northern France in 1916), and above all reflections on the value of living with art. Indeed, the Kettle’s Yard House was Ede’s last and most profound creation, making a ‘living place’ in which people and art could come together in a relaxed ambience – a home – in contrast to the austerity of a museum. Ede had been creating places to relax and socialise, surrounded by art, for much of his life: whether in his rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, when he was training officer cadets during the First World War, or in Hampstead during his time as a Tate curator, when much of the London arts world seems to have come to dinner with Jim and his wife Helen during the 1920s and ‘30s.    

In the Kettle’s Yard archive, one of the documents I found was a 220-page manuscript entitled ‘Variations on a Week-End Theme’. At the top of the first page Jim Ede has written, by hand, not a book – but a ‘log’ of 400 Service men visitors to us in 1946 and 47. 

Jim and Helen Ede moved to Tangier in Morocco in late 1936, following Ede’s resignation from his curatorial post at the Tate Gallery, where he had worked since 1921. Jim was 41 and Helen 42. They had met at art college in Edinburgh in 1913, and were married at Chelsea Town Hall in 1921. Their two children, Elisabeth and Mary were born in 1921 and 1924. In Tangier, with the help of a local architect, Ede designed a large house in the new Modernist style, which he called ‘Whitestone’. It was a few miles from the centre of Tangier, half way up a stretch of hills known as ‘the Mountain’. From its terraces were panoramic views across the bay and into the country.  

Jim and Helen Ede in Tangier, c. 1937

Jim and Helen Ede in Tangier, c. 1937

Jim Ede's unpublished Tangier Log, 'Variations on a Week-End Theme'
Kettle's Yard Archive

Jim Ede's unpublished Tangier Log, 'Variations on a Week-End Theme'
Kettle's Yard Archive

Whitestone, c. 1937

Whitestone, c. 1937

Various pressures in London seem to have inspired the move, not least Ede’s increasing frustration with the conservative taste at the Tate: at odds with his friendship with and championing of a new generation of pioneering artists, including Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. In 1930 Ede had also spent some months in Tangier recovering from illness. He had loved the temperate climate, the beautiful light and the feeling of freedom Tangier seemed to exude, as a designated ‘international zone’. His daughters were growing up too, with Elisabeth close to leaving home, though Mary recalls being taken out of school and spending much of 1937 at Whitestone.  

Ede writes of life in the new house: 

I thought we had never enjoyed a house so much as we did during those first months. Our room was large. It had a floor of polished black tiles and four large French windows opening onto a terrace… Beyond the land sloped away to the sea and to range after range of mountains. The mornings were like a Japanese print, a curtain of light; cowbirds flew in swirls across the valley. During these months we had carefree days when we tramped across the great expanse of the countryside, through the scent of cistus and myrtle, and the hum of bees, through the deluging rain and dazzling sunlight, to the great Atlantic beaches where the sand was smooth and clean and the sea came in, high, transparent and vigorous. 

– 'Between Two Memories' (unpublished), Jim Ede

With Tangier as his new base, Ede planned and undertook two successful art lecture tours across America in 1937/8 and early 1939. When war broke out in September 1939, the Edes initially stayed in Tangier. Through their close friends Alvary and Lorna Gascoigne (Alvary Gascoigne was the British Consul-General), they instigated drives into the country for servicemen on their three days of leave over from the garrison in nearby Gibraltar. They frequently went far beyond the call of duty, inviting the men to Whitestone for meals, and doing all they could to enliven the trips. Ede wrote that it ‘...taught us how much the soldier abroad longed for human consideration and domesticity, and how very little he ever got it’. 

When Italy joined the war in June 1940, the visits from Gibraltar stopped, and later that year, the Edes shut up their house and left for America. When they eventually returned to Tangier in 1945, they substantially altered Whitestone to create a self-contained floor with five bedrooms, so they could start a new project: inviting groups of servicemen from Gibraltar to stay for a long weekend. Whitestone would become a home from home. 

Interior of Whitestone, late 1930s. Ben Nicholson's 1933 (musical instruments) is now at Kettle's Yard

Interior of Whitestone, late 1930s. Ben Nicholson's 1933 (musical instruments) is now at Kettle's Yard

Interior of Whitestone, late 1930s.
Christopher Wood's painting Boy With Cat can now be seen at Kettle's Yard.

Interior of Whitestone, late 1930s.
Christopher Wood's painting Boy With Cat can now be seen at Kettle's Yard.

Whitestone, c. 1946

Whitestone, c. 1946

'Explanation'- Jim Ede

Having discovered in 1939 that the Service man stationed in Gibraltar hardly ever got the opportunity to go inside a private house and that many of them craved for just this change, we decided, should the war leave us our house and our persons, to make a home to which they could come on leave.

When we returned to Tangier in 1945, we built a new floor on the open roof – making five bedrooms there and a lounge, arranged another sitting room and dining room and ourselves dug in on the ground floor.

After six months or so the Authority in Gibraltar decided to send some men over and our first party of five arrived. 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. It had become the thing for Officers to have good quarters, but anything would do for the Service man, ‘he’s not used to comforts’ I was told. In the hotels they gave the Service man one sheet for his bed and obliged him to eat screened off in a place apart. One high-ranking Officer, looking at our polished floors said ‘they’ll soon ruin those with their hob-nailed boots’. He must have been thinking of the days of Wellington. This seemed to be the general attitude bred of our old traditions; but we believe the standards of living have changed and that the men who visit us will appreciate nice living; that it is only by giving them what we ourselves believe in, that we can establish a living contact.

'Variations on a Week-End Theme', 1946

Idealistic and generous in their intentions, the Edes felt strongly that soldiers and airmen living in barracks in Gibraltar, whether waiting to be demobbed or undertaking their national service, were without something that mattered. That 'something' was being able to relax, talk and eat in the surroundings of a home. Of course, Whitestone was no ordinary house or home, with its superb location, light filled rooms, large garden and far reaching views. On the walls were paintings by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood and no doubt by other artists too, some of which are now at Kettle’s Yard. In the log we hear of books and of music. Some of the chairs to be spotted in the photographs have also found a final home in Cambridge. 

One of Ede’s art lectures was entitled ‘Pictures are like People’. In his Tangier log Ede reverses this proposition, describing each serviceman with the same attentiveness as he would a painting. Whitestone, in these years, becomes something more than a special place. The Edes’ ‘scheme’, with its repetitive nature and length, running for nearly two years, is like a research project, and the log the dedicated notes of a social scientist. Their hospitality in opening up their house to others, and their evident interest in all who came, foreshadows much of Jim Ede’s conception of Kettle’s Yard. As he once wrote of Kettle’s Yard in reply to a student: Do come in as often as you like – the place is only alive when used.

Andrew Nairne

Part 1 >>

Helen Ede on the terrace at Whitestone, late 1930s

Helen Ede on the terrace at Whitestone, late 1930s

Text: © Kettle’s Yard
Photographs: courtesy Swan family archive & Kettle’s Yard Archive 

Andrew Nairne is Director of Kettle’s Yard
Eliza Spindel is Curatorial Assistant, House & Collection