Friday, 30 March 2018

Jim Ede: a twentieth-century Ruskin?

I don’t know if anyone has noticed the similarities between Jim Ede and John Ruskin. Both dedicated much of their wealth to disseminating a sense of beauty; both were crackpots, managing to inspire the reader and appal the reader, sometimes in equal doses. Both had an exquisite sense of the visual, combining both things created by humans and purely natural phenomena. For Ruskin, it was the Swiss mountain landscape; for Ede, it was natural substances such as a beach pebble or an old piece of wood.

Having just visited the expanded Kettle’s Yard, I find the challenge is to how to combine the inspiration and sense of wonder with muddle-headedness and overweening sense of rightness that often applies to people with the money to buy objects. It’s impossible to capture it in a single post, but here goes.

Incidentally, one thing I noticed is that apart from a café and a revised position for the shop, nothing at Kettle’s Yard appears to have changed. Lots of things were added, I understand in basements and overhead, but nothing that can be seen by the visitor. This is architecture attempting to be invisible, and in this case it is very successful. It reminds me of the invisible extension to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich.
Where did Ede get the money to buy, and to totally transform, the cottages that became Kettle’s Yard? There are only two clues in his A way of life: first, his father gave him some money to enable him to buy a house in Hampstead – the sale of this house would have generated lots of money. Secondly, Christopher Neve in Country Life notes that Ede made money by selling Gaudier-Brzeska works. Perhaps many years after the artist’s death Ede was able to make a lot of money selling several of the original works and replacing them in Kettle’s Yard by casts.
So what did I like, and what did I dislike, in Kettle’s Yard?

Ede has a genius for creating spaces. Since the most memorable aspect of the original Kettle’s Yard building is the two bay windows, and it turns out that Ede added them during the work of knocking three or four cottages together, it can be said the resulting space is Ede’s creation. He manages to preserve an artisan-like feel to the space without prettifying it too much. Of course, Kettle’s Yard is wildly popular today because the interiors of the original building correspond with current style for interior design – bare floors, stripped wood, irregular shapes. But he can’t be blamed for that.
Similarly, Ede has a genius for placing objects in apparently simple ways that create a very satisfying effect. Some pebbles, together with a small sculpture or dish, just look right. Typically he gathers objects together on a round table or cupboard top.

He uses and creates wonder from very simple shapes: round tables, spiral stairs, round bay windows.
He makes use of light in the original building to cast magical shadows on these objects. In the afternoon, when the visitor walks around the building, the light through the west-facing windows can be powerful and very evocative. Of course, this breaks a cardinal rule for art galleries not to have any direct light, and therefore no shadow. This is a building the celebrates shadows.
He uses found objects to create magical effects. The long tables with iron legs were actually beams holding up a workshop on the original site, that he repurposed.
So where does it all go wrong? The effect starts to jar as the visitor walks down the steps to the first extension, by Leslie Martin, opened 1970.

Now we are dealing with a completely new space. Unfortunately Martin has failed to appreciate the unplanned and lived-in feel of the original building; the new building has windows, rails, walls that are all too regular. It feels like a new building. It has lost, in a word, the intimacy of the original (even if the “original” was largely Ede’s creation). It does not feel domestic. Like most galleries, the space works in parts but not as a whole.
It’s at this point that the visitor starts to notice Ede’s fondness for art with words. There is a glass panel in one window with a quote from the Book of Job in the Old Testament. For Ede, all art is religious, and while I am happy for that to be a background theme of his, I notice that his descriptions of the art he chooses focuses on a religious interpretation, and a very single-minded interpretation at that.  He quotes Simone Weil approvingly: ““the beauty of the world is almost the only way by which we can allow God to penetrate us”, and for Ede, the beauty of the world is expressed by Kettle’s Yard, which he sees as a manifestation of God. For example, “If I had to find another name for God, I think it would be balance.”
It is questionable to discover that powerful and moving objects such as the wood sculpture “Gate” are described by Ede as “the Eternal Gate through which we must all pass”.  This was written by a man in his eighties, perhaps, but Ede is a man seeing religious symbolism in everything he looks at.
And even judged just by “rightness” of display, much of Kettle’s Yard is just wrong. 

The paintings in the attic, for example, are almost all hung on walls following the line of the roof, which makes them difficult if not impossible to see. Yet Ede claims one corner of this attic “becomes a piece of stillness … Be Still and know that I am God … I search always for this stillness”.  I see a cramped distorted space in the attic, and I don’t see stillness.
Similarly many of the objects in the Martin extension are beautiful, but I don’t think they gain from the space; they are beautiful despite the space. The Martin extension shows the Ede approach reduced to a formula: add a few non-matching chairs, add some corner cupboards, a small carpet or two, and some pebbles … but the objects are in the end defeated by the space, just as the Kettle’s Yard objects when displayed temporarily in the Fitzwilliam had lost so much of their magic. They felt out of place.
Finally, the exhibition space at Kettle’s Yard bears no resemblance whatever to the original building or even to the values that Ede promoted. He praised beauty above all, and the contemporary galleries are only very infrequently about beauty. They lack the serendipitous, the domestic scale, the juxtaposition of old and new, of created and found. So whatever magic Ede created is lost before the visitor has even left the gallery.
As for the latest (2018) extension, I didn’t even notice it! The gallery has been expanded, but the original house has been put back precisely as it was before, with not a pebble (or a lemon) out of place.  
Which leads to another, final question: should the house exist as a complete fossil?  One reason why the recent exhibition of Kettle’s Yard objects at the Hepworth in Wakefield exhibition was that it both was, yet was not, Kettle’s Yard. It took some aspects (such as a spiral staircase, and rush circular mats) and combined them with totally new objects to create something new but inspired by Ede. There’s a thought for the Kettle’s Yard curators.

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