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Hilary Goy tells us about the Friends of Kettle’s Yard’s recent trip to New England. 

A band of intrepid travellers met opposite the Botanic Garden at 5.30 am. We all knew that the early start would be well worth it and we were right. Our journey progressed smoothly to JFK Airport from Heathrow and then the exploration into art began.

Our first stop was the Dia:Beacon contemporary art gallery, opened in 2003 in upstate New York. It is housed in a 1929 factory building, offering amazingly large spaces dedicated to individual artists. I was especially fascinated by Lee Ufan’s piece Relatum, which consisted of metal rods placed upright in sand, producing the effect of an ‘Iron Field’, as it was first named.

Lee Ufan at Dia: Beacon. Photograph: Louisa Riley-Smith

Next morning, we criss-crossed the river Hudson, on our way to the town of Hudson. Here we first visited an outdoor sculpture park, Storm King. The landscape forms outdoor galleries for sculptures made specifically for their setting. Alexander Calder’s imposing sculpture The Arch with sweeping curves mirrors the grandeur of its natural setting. There is also a centre where Mark Dion’s impressive Memory Box was shown, a wooden room filled with boxes on shelves.

Alexander Calder at Storm King. Photograph: Martin Thompson

We next stopped at the home of the painter, Thomas Cole, 1801–48, regarded as the primary founder of the Hudson River School. Cole said ‘if he who travelled and observed the skies of other climes will spend a few months on the banks of the Hudson, he must be constrained to acknowledge that for variety and magnificence American skies are unsurpassed’.

Finally, we reached Hudson itself, described as ‘the trendiest town in New York State’ – and a very welcome drinks reception at Ca’Mea, where we stayed. The following morning, we went to the Clark Institute in Williamstown. Sterling Clark (heir to the Singer Sewing machine fortune) and his wife Francine opened the Institute in 1955: the stunning gallery has a collection of art from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. Our visit was all too short to take in all the gems which are there and describe them adequately. However, two cannot be overlooked – Winslow Homer’s Saco Bay (1896) and Turner’s 1840 painting Rockets and Blue Lights: a storm rages at sea and flares explode in the sky. Any viewer feels the drama and joins in the tension with the onlookers on the shore.

The contrast with our next gallery, the MASS MoCA – Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art – opened in 1986, could not have been greater. It is housed on a huge ex-factory complex dating from the late nineteenth century. We experienced the light installation of James Turrrell by entering a stage which was enveloped in colour changing and flashing lights – disconcerting and otherworldly as it immerses the participants in an alternative reality. For me, the highlight was the work of Sol LeWitt, with three floors showing the development of his work, swirled in colours and shapes to take imagination to another plane.

After three nights experiencing different aspects of New England, we made our way to Boston. On the way we visited two very different houses. Firstly, the one designed by Walter Gropius in Lincoln. It sits in a wonderful garden, designed to showcase the house. The architecture and décor are iconic Bauhaus, with sympathy for the New England location, and emphasis on efficiency and utility. The original furnishings, even the crockery, give a feeling of the essence of the man. His family are present, too; his wife, Ise, was a designer: her dresses are still in the bedroom. Their daughter, Ati, had a bedroom with its own terrace and spiral staircase to the garden – a teenage girl’s paradise.

Gropius House. Photograph: Louisa Riley-Smith

Our next stop was not so glamorous, but no less fascinating, the birthplace of Henry Thoreau, the famous philosopher, activist and inspiration for many thinkers, including Ghandi. One of his famous quotations is ‘One is not born into a world to do everything, but to do something’.

Picnic lunch at Thoreau’s house. Photograph: Louisa Riley-Smith

In Boston the next morning, we had a walking tour of the Common and Beacon Hill. The afternoon brought a subway ride to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Isabella and her husband John were prolific collectors of European, Asian and American art. When John died, Isabella built the museum in the style of a fifteenth century Venetian Palazzo to house their collection of art. In her will she specified that the collection should be kept as it was. The paintings, sculptures, tapestries and artefacts of all kinds are to be appreciated as they are, without labels to guide viewers’ ideas. There is a study for the John Singer Sargent portrait Fumee d’Ambre Girls which we had seen in the Clark. In the cornucopia of delights, the crowning piece for me is in the Gothic Room – a Sargent portrait of Isabella, statuesque in a royal blue evening gown against a patterned fabric background, which centres halo-like around her head. There is a sample piece of the fabric in the Long Gallery.

Our last day of visits took us first to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the collections span the Ancient World, Europe, Africa and the Americas. There were special exhibitions of Frida Kahlo, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gender Bending Fashion.The wandering visitor can see delights in every corner, such as the Portrait of a Young Womanby Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun (1797), and Sargent’s unusual portrayal of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit(1882). The girls are in the shadowed hall of their Paris apartment, decorated with two huge Chinese vases, which are actually displayed beside the picture.

We stopped off at the ICA Watershed to experience John Akomfrah: Purple, an immersive 6 channel video, which used archival footage alongside newly shot film and a hypnotic sound score. The theme included climate change and the effects on human communities.

Then we went by boat across to the ICA Boston, housed in a striking building overlooking the water. After an introduction by the curator, we explored the intense exhibits, including another video installation with 9 channels of a very different kind called The Visitors by Ragnar Kjarfansson.

In the evening, we walked along to the dock for our group dinner at the Barking Crab restaurant. The meal was luscious. As a classicist I perused the waiting staff’s T-shirts with perplexity – yes, ‘diem’ but I was expecting ‘carpe’ to go with it, but that had been supplanted by ‘crabe’ – a triumph of advertising.

The Barking Crab. Photograph: Diana Huntingford

‘Exploring New England’ was a wonderful experience on many levels, with art, good company, contrasts and new experiences. Martin Thompson and Louisa Riley-Smith undertook an awesome task in choosing galleries and visits, organising talks, finding interesting accommodation and, with unending good humour, managing a crowd of independent, inquisitive souls. Thank you so much!

Want to go on the next Friends of Kettle’s Yard trip away? Join today.