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Jim Ede loved to take students on tours of his house at Kettle’s Yard. My fading memory of one such tour, in 1970, is as much of the man as the place. Tall and lean, courteous but commanding, proud of his friendship with artists and confident in his own judgment, he appeared benign but remote. What seemed especially puzzling was the disparity between this elderly man, this relic from an earlier age, and the home and collection which seemed to us to be visually so very modern, if partly housed in old cottages almost entirely devoid of technology.
At least in one respect, Jim Ede was recognisable to us; his rectitude and paternalism were familiar qualities of many of the survivors of the Great War. An entire generation of grandfathers, great uncles and family friends, who had served on the Western or other fronts, still surrounded us. Whatever differences separated them, these men shared a strange past and their stories of the First World War were part of the troubled history of each family.
What eluded me in 1970 was the way Kettle’s Yard, which seemed a perfectly realised oasis of calm, was born of Ede’s sense of inadequacy, a sense of loss. At the age of 93, in an interview with John Goto, Ede recalled purchasing the three cottages which would become Kettle’s Yard. He said of this time (1957):
my so-called gifts seemed all to have become hidden by failure, failure to attain that union with God which I believe to be the essence of man’s nature; yet I still praise God for this very sense of loss which has not changed in essence though it has developed. I have lived within certain laws – that we are not free in the accepted meaning of the word, that freedom is conformity to a plan ‘whose service is perfect freedom’.
This sense of loss, in part at least, can be traced right back to the War. His belief in conformity to a plan became clearer in the aftermath of the War.
In his reminiscence, A Way of Life Jim Ede passed over his time as a soldier. Yet the traumas of his service on the Western Front, the mustard gassing, repatriation, convalescence and eventual nervous breakdown, lay deep within his views about art and life.
These views, on art and life, had their roots in Roger Fry’s essays, Vision and Design (1920), which persuaded Ede that beauty was to be found in balance and harmony, qualities as evident in pre-classical art and the arts of Africa and Asia, as in a painting by Piero della Francesca. The English admirers of modern French painters, such as the Nicholsons, also showed Ede how a painting might aspire to a perfectly self-sufficient composure, in a fresh and individual way. Constructivist sculptors and architects, such as Naum Gabo and, later, Leslie Martin, demonstrated how line, plane and space could be daringly recombined to configure a purer, more cerebral, visual environment.
Above all, it was the arts and crafts movement which offered Ede a model of how artistic taste could be cultivated in the home, how the hand-made might reveal the moral character of the maker, how form and material mattered more than representation and meaning and how art might conform to nature. For Ede, art was about loving the beautiful; William Morris would willingly have echoed Ede’s sentiment: ‘If you don’t love the things you are going to present with an enormously human love, then what’s the point?’
The 1920s was the crucial decade, when Jim Ede assimilated these ideas into his non-conformist Christian meditations. He evolved a theology of art, a way of death as much as a way of life, which placed attentiveness at the centre of contemplation. Here he is, very late in his long life, reflecting on death:
I have the feeling that if it’s anything it’s coherence and balance. You see I believe in stillness if only I could attain it, which I don’t think I can. Harmony is another word for it. Stillness is really a very strange word; to be still meaning to be attentive, to take in, to search and indeed to be in that place where you don’t take in anything at all, just know.
One way of aspiring to this stillness, before death, was the contemplation of the visual. He intended the house at Kettle’s Yard as a retreat, where visual harmony might be experienced, without distraction. It looked inward: the discreet side entrance, the enclosed cottage rooms, the sequencing of views and spaces, the treasured objects carefully positioned in relation to one another, the pearly light delicately controlled, all gradually contrived to slow the pulse of the visitor. A place further removed from the horrors of the Great War than the house at Kettle’s Yard is hard to imagine. But then that was the point.
What seemed to us undergraduates a very modern look was, had we realised, the aesthetic of the 1920s, the sensibility of the young survivors of the War. Ede said that the forming of Kettle’s Yard began I suppose by my meeting with Ben and Winifred Nicholson in 1924 or thereabouts. There can be no doubting his sense of mission of Christian humanism, his rejection of the fashionable scepticism and materialism of the age. Later he would recall that at that time, 1928-38, I thought I knew myself. I had a profound feeling for the essence of life of which I felt myself to be a part. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.
The paintings at the centre of the collection, by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, are mostly of the 1920s and early 1930s. If these artists did not serve in the War (Ben too asthmatic, Wood too young, Wallis too old), Ede’s friend David Jones certainly did; his recollections, In Parenthesis, are perhaps the most poetically honest of all the accounts of the suffering of the tommies.
Henry Moore was another of the Kettle’s Yard war veterans but the sculptor whom Kettle’s Yard most obviously commemorates is Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in action at Neuville St Vast in June 1915. Jim Ede acquired much of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work when Ede worked as a curator at the Tate, subsequently writing Savage Messiah, a passionate defence of the life and work of the young artist. Ede took the greatest care in positioning Gaudier-Brzeska’s work, isolating the self-absorbed Dancer on the table in the alcove, tenderly silhouetting her against the softening light of the arched window. Gaudier-Brzeska’s flirtation with the warlike Vorticists, followers of Wyndham Lewis, presented a challenge for the pacifist Ede and the angular, Darwinian Bird swallowing a fish, perched on its great log, is one of the very few pieces in the house to refer to war. Ede dealt with its violence by arguing that it is so much more a statement of sculpture than of war.
Yet, though Gaudier-Brzeska may have been eulogised and his works given sanctuary, the house in 1970 hardly seemed a shrine for the fallen. How could it have been? Most of Ede’s artist friends were still around and many of their artworks shone with love, wit and invention. In the early years, a visit to the house could be a life-enhancing experience, offering a captivating model of tranquil aestheticism; quietly, Cambridge families began arranging beach pebbles near to their windows, unaware of the tortured history of Ede’s sensibility.
In 1970, the house at Kettle’s Yard seemed to be far removed from the Great War. Now that Jim Ede and his artist friends, together with their entire generation, are long gone, the collection emerges in another light. Without living voices to explain it, the place itself seems to hold in equilibrium the convictions of those War survivors, not crabbed by bitterness, but devoted to the hope that vision itself might help restore the soul.
Many thanks to Paul Shakeshaft and St John the Evangelist’s parish magazine for allowing us to publish this article online.