Kettle’s Yard House & Gallery

Currently closed while we carry out a major building project

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Kettle’s Yard: Looking Ahead

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Mark Haworth-Booth

In the current issue of Slightly Foxed, the curator Mark Haworth-Booth describes how, back in the 60s, he helped Jim Ede ensure the future of Kettle’s Yard.

Mark Haworth-Booth read English at Clare College 1963-66 and became an habitué of Kettle’s Yard. He was startled to find that Jim Ede had been offering Kettle’s Yard as a gift to the University of Cambridge for several years, always to be turned down because of worries over expense and questions about whether enough people would visit a place that seemed very modest compared to the mighty Fitzwilliam Museum . . .

In 1966, a fellow undergraduate, James Fraser, and I devised a petition urging the university to accept the gift. Jim pointed us towards known fans of Kettle’s Yard, including distinguished scientists, as well as enthusiastic fellows, undergraduates and other well-wishers. He mentioned E. M. Forster and I arranged to visit the great novelist. His rooms at King’s were on the first floor of a staircase, on the left as you enter the college from King’s Parade. Like many other undergraduates, I had read his The Longest Journey (1907) – partly set in Cambridge – with acute interest, identifying completely with its troubled protagonist Rickie.

Forster waved me to a chaise-longue, on one end of which were that morning’s opened letters, their envelopes crumpled on the carpet. He offered me water biscuits and said yes of course he knew Jim – Jim had been on the fringes of Bloomsbury in the Twenties – and of course he would sign. He did so in the way the elderly do, placing the nib of his pen on the paper with deliberation and then making the characters in a desperate rush. I was elated. A week or so later I received a postcard from Aldeburgh. It had been written on Forster’s behalf by someone with a firmer hand. The message ran: ‘I now realize what your petition is about. I am so glad I signed it.’

Another signature was that of an undergraduate Jim said I should be sure to contact. I left a sheet for Nicholas Serota and soon received it back duly signed. A selection of signatories’ names was published in the Cambridge Review and an article appeared in the student paper Varsity. I went down that June but stayed in touch with Jim. On 28 October 1966 he wrote: ‘I’m glad at last to be able to announce what I expect you have already heard, that the University has accepted Kettle’s Yard and all that is in it, stones and all (I’ve kept a bed or two)’.

The University went on to buy a piece of adjoining land and, with Jim’s participation, commissioned Sir Leslie Martin to build an elegant gallery extension. It was opened in May 1970 by the Prince of Wales, then an undergraduate at Trinity. An inaugural concert was given by Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim. Under a series of inspired directors, Kettle’s Yard has been further extended with a separate exhibition gallery but always in the spirit of the four cottages transformed by Jim, which remain the aesthetic core.

Some of us went on from Cambridge to work in museums and galleries. I feel sure that Sir Nicholas Serota, CH, as he now is, would agree that although we may have enlarged the numbers involved in looking at art of many different kinds, no public galleries match the quality of the experience offered by Kettle’s Yard. There we find not only objects but a whole way of life.

A full version of this article appears in Slightly Foxed Issue 42, Summer 2014

Mark Haworth-Booth worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1970 to 2004, where he served as senior curator of photographs. Earlier this year Mark gave Kettle’s Yard a collection of letters received from Jim Ede.