Some of the other things I’ve always wanted to see in Venice are the Tiepolo frescoes in the Palazzo Labia. This is a large palazzo, just on the corner of the Cannaregio Canal, as it meets the Grand Canal, and next to the church of San Geremia.
It was built for a very wealthy family of Spanish merchants at the end of the 17th century. They had ‘paid’ their way into Venetian aristocracy – providing a large amount of money for the Venetian state in return for having their family name entered into the famous Venetian Libro d’Oro. This ‘Golden Book’ was first begun in 1315, to list all the families represented on the Great Council of Venice in the years up to 1297 and to ensure that only representatives of these original and founding families of the city could be eligible for high office. Even if you later became very wealthy and influential within your profession or parish, you couldn’t work your way into the governing elite of the city without your name being in this book.
At least, that was the rule for many generations. By the 1600s it was apparent that the city was in financial difficulties and the never-to-be-adulterated aristocratic elite suddenly found that it was prudent to open the book once more and inscribe some new names, in return for suitably munificent payments, of course – usually starting at 100,000 ducats.
The Labia may have been able to pay their way into the book, but they weren’t allowed to build their palace right on the Grand Canal – this was a privilege strictly reserved for the oldest families. They got very near to it – the palace overlooks the quayside but is deliberately some yards from the water’s edge. However, they made up for this literal set-back by the magnificence of the palace that they created.
The main reason to visit Palazzo Labia is to see the frescoes created in the Banqueting Hall by Giambattista Tiepolo between 1746 – 47. These comprise his most important decorative scheme in Venice and show scenes from the story of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. They are amazing!
The difficulty is that the Palazzo now belongs to the RAI Broadcasting Company, and so is not usually open to the public. I know that well-connected tour guides have ways of getting small groups in to see the frescoes, so this time I did some speculative emailing to see if I could arrange a visit. With great good luck my email eventually reached a charming gentleman within the RAI organisation who was happy to make an appointment for us to see the palace.
The grand rooms on the first floor of the palace are filled with splendid decorations and furnishings, including a set of Brussels tapestries from designs by Giulio Romano, frescoes of the signs of the zodiac and an exquisite mirrored room, with painted grisaille frescoes of statues, alternating with the mirrors around the room.
The Banqueting Hall, however, is breath-taking. The room is smaller than I expected, but rises to double height, and is filled with remarkable illusionistic architectural frescoes, devised and painted by Tiepolo’s collaborator, Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna. The real doors and windows of the room are all incorporated into the decorative scheme, so it is initially difficult to quite tell what is real and what is not.
Within this framework are Tiepolo’s opulent and delicate images of Queen Cleopatra as she meets the Roman hero Mark Anthony for the first time and then stages a magnificent banquet in his honour. This was a subject that Tiepolo explored on numerous occasions, with various sketches and paintings that worked out and refined the two main compositions.
On the west wall we see the princely couple, Mark Anthony leading Cleopatra by the hand from the gangplank of his vessel, down the painted steps into the room in which we are standing. She hangs back slightly, appraising him, seemingly moving with a queenly dignity that may have a good deal to do with the profusion of rich silks and damask in the skirts she gathers up in her right hand. A press of onlookers gather behind the couple, including one of Tiepolo’s characteristic white horses, edging himself into the picture space.
On the other side of the room we have the subsequent banquet, in which Cleopatra is determined to out-do the hospitality of Anthony. At a table set in a loggia, with musicians on the balcony above, the stately queen calls for a glass of vinegar, into which she drops one of the priceless pearls she has been wearing – and then drinks the dissolved remains. No other banquet could provide such rare and precious fare! Around both scenes are a multitude of watching figures, from the Queen’s dwarf and Anthony’s adjutant to turbaned Turks, Nubian servants, maids, attendants and numerous dogs. Above, the ceiling of the room opens up, with a painting of Bellerophon, riding on the winged horse, Pegasus.
The rich colours, now slightly faded, and the ‘sketchy’ way in which Tiepolo paints, give the whole interior an immediacy – despite the rational architectural framework. There is a feeling that you are just seeing these figures for a moment, before they disappear into another room and another part of their story. The characterful figures who support the royal pair – peering, watching, reacting to their every move – are so brilliantly rendered that you can imagine whole back-stories for them. You can’t help but feel that these are portraits, whether of Tiepolo’s friends and neighbours, or members of the palace staff.
These wonderful images were created to celebrate the wedding of a member of the Labia family in the mid-1740s – and what a party that must have been! But the glories of the Venetian State were rapidly approaching their end and after the fall of the Republic in 1797, the Labia family left Venice and their Palazzo and it fell into a long decline.
New hope came in 1948, when the Palazzo Labia was bought by the French-born, Spanish multi-millionaire Charles de Beistegui. Heir to an immense fortune, this Eton-educated art collector and interior decorator was famous for his outlandish style and incredible parties. (During the 1930s he apparently had a penthouse flat on the Champs Élysées, designed by Le Corbusier, which included an electronically operated hedge which parted to reveal a view of the Arc du Triomphe).
After a rapid restoration, Beistegui gave a grand costume ball at the Palazzo Labia in September 1951, which he dubbed, ‘La Bal Oriental’ and which has been known subsequently as ‘The Ball of the Century’.
It was the last great event of its kind, with the Grand Canal crowded with spectators to see the arrival of the stunning parade of celebrities, movie-stars, princesses and millionaires who had clamoured for places on the guest-list. Christian Dior and Salvador Dali made each other’s costumes. Young designers Pierre Cardin and Nina Ricci made their names by designing many of the other costumes. Cecil Beaton took the photographs. Beistegui himself wore a huge full-bottomed periwig and the dress of an eighteenth century Venetian Senator, including 16-inch high platform shoes, which raised the diminutive 5-foot 3-inch Maecenas to a towering 6-foot seven!
Standing in the midst of the Tiepolo’s in the Labia’s Banqueting Hall, it’s easy to imagine this as a fitting setting for such a hedonistic and over-the-top party, but looking at Cleopatra – about to drop that pearl into her glass – you can’t help feeling that she must have regarded it all as a bit plebeian. Some of the guests may have copied her costume, or the abundance of her pearls, but few could have quite managed that hauteur and grandeur as she swept out on the arm of Mark Anthony.
(And a special thank-you to RAI for letting us have a tour of the Palazzo Labia!)
On this trip to Venice I’m trying to catch up on some of the things that I’ve never managed to do in the past.
For a start, I’ve never been in Venice at Easter, so the opportunity to go to a full scale Patriarchal High Mass in Saint Mark’s Basilica was something not to be missed. Whatever one’s religious inclination (and mine are pretty non-existent) this was a wonderful chance to see the Basilica in all its pomp – ablaze with light, heavy with incense, filled with ethereal music and with nearly two hours to sit and stare at the mosaics and decorations. The whole effect was mesmerizing and utterly unlike the normal, rather dark and rushed, tourist visit.
A corner of the city that I had never properly penetrated was the Arsenale. Nowadays some of the huge warehouses here are used as exhibition space, especially by the Venice Biennale. As the Biennale isn’t happening for some weeks (although the preparations are very much in evidence around the city) we took the chance to visit another art exhibition being held in several of the warehouses at the north of the Arsenale complex. Long years ago the only way to see the interior of this vast area was on the No 5 vaporetto, which – in its circular tour of the city – was allowed to go straight through the magnificent main gate of the Arsenal and out into the lagoon through its northern portal. The rest of the Arsenal was a military area and very heavily restricted.
Now the huge warehouses and manufacturing areas where the Venetian fleet was constructed and maintained are gradually opening up, with many of the spaces being use for conferences, corporate entertaining and exhibitions. These are enormous, linked spaces, with high pitched roofs and still with traces of forges and other industrial processes. Amongst these buildings sails were made, ropes twisted, provisions stocked, wood hewn and carved, nails hammered and pitch boiled. Even seeing a tiny proportion of these buildings gives you a new idea of just how impressive this remarkable production-line approach to shipbuilding must have been.
The oft-told story of how King Henry III of France was royally entertained by the Venetians on his visit in 1574 included his being shown, first thing in the morning, the timbers of a new ship being laid down. Then, after a sumptuous all-day, all-you-can-eat banquet he was taken back to the main gate of the Arsenal that evening to see the completed ship come sailing through; rigged, manned, provisioned, with sails unfurled, cannon at the ready and complete in every way. Now that I’ve seen something of the size of the operation – even if only a tiny part – that story seems ever more credible.
The Lion of St Mark. The symbol of Venice and ever-present around the Arsenal – just to remind the workers who they were working for!
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am so enjoying reading Simon Winder’s new book, Lotharingia; A Personal History of Europe’s Lost Country. As with his other books, Germania and Danubia, I find myself laughing out loud at his fascinating explorations of the world of the Holy Roman Empire and its neighbours. This time he is revealing the history of those in-between lands, from the Netherlands south to Switzerland, that lie between what was the Holy Roman Empire and France.
I love Winder’s sense of humour and infectious sense of fun. I share that feeling of history as something wonderfully entertaining, as well as gripping, thrilling, moving, terrifying and vital to our understanding of our present. I’m delighted at finding someone else for whom the wilder shores of the Baroque are filled with joy and I, too, know that moment when exhausted companions peel away as I skip ecstatically round churches packed with endless – and increasingly mad – funeral monuments.
Last year, as we were driving north through Bavaria, I spotted a road sign for Ottobeuren. From the back of my mind came the dim ringing of a bell and I suggested to my long-suffering companion ( also driver)that we might make a small detour. It may not be something that he would like, I said (always better to be up-front and truthful about mad Baroque and Roccoco-ery, I feel), but we would only have a very quick look.
My mind had dredged up the idea of an abbey, but I was unprepared for the full grandeur of this completely over-the-top Benedictine foundation, large and white and dominating the surrounding town. It was, I discovered, one of the self-ruling abbeys of the Holy Roman Empire and had been founded in 764 by the Blessed Toto (which brings the whole camp wonderment of the Wizard of Oz and the full power of the Bavarian Baroque crashing together in one glorious cornucopia). In the early 1700s the present church and attendant monastery were built, the whole being designed by Johann Michel Fischer, one of the finest architects of Bavarian Baroque.
And, boy, is that basilica baroque! A glorious symphony of white, pink and gold, with flying angels, stucco clouds, pulpits like gaudy gazebos and full-scale jewel encrusted skeletons in crystal reliquaries beneath the altars. The painted ceilings soared; swathes of red and pink marble, carved into swirling festoons, waved and rocked; angels trumpeted while marble bishops simpered and everybody’s drapery seemed to be caught in a high wind. The whole effect was of giant wedding-cake icing that had taken over the world.
A sign led to the ‘Museum’, which turned out to be most of the vast monastery – beautifully and recently refurbished, immaculately kept, and almost as decorated as the church. Fabulous staircases lead to the Abbot’s apartments – much more suitable for a prince rather than an ascetic religious leader. There is a small theatre (!!) as well as a large ballroom – baby-pink with an apotheosis painted on the ceiling, an awful lot of icing-sugar angels and about twenty-four life-size gilt statues of various Holy Roman Emperors in stages of exaggerated rococo posturing.
Quite why a monastery should need a theatre, let alone a ballroom, remains to be seen. But it would certainly need a library, and that at Ottobeuren is perfect. Light and curvaceous, with delicate painted ceilings and pink marbled columns this is an exquisite setting for the Abbey’s books, bound in soft cream-coloured calfskin. An exuberant figure of Athena, helmeted but with flowing curls and more wind-blown drapery, stands on a plinth in the centre of the room.
I adored Ottobeuren. For me the whole experience was entirely joyous, a wonderful three-dimensional uber-fest of over-the-top decorative fantasy. I can quite understand that it may be far too much for some people, but for me it is, above all, glorious FUN.
Years ago, whenever I called a building or an artwork ‘fun’ in my mother’s hearing she would object, saying that you couldn’t describe architecture or painting as fun. I think she felt ‘fun’ was something that you did, rather than something to be experienced through other things. A picnic might be fun, or a visit to the Pantomime, but certainly not a palace or (heavens above!) a church.
About a decade ago I had a conversation with people I knew very slightly, in the café at Tate Britain. One of them became very fierce when I described a work of art as ‘fun’. I can’t remember what work it was, but she announced that she loathed people who tried to make out that art was entertaining;
“It’s much more important than that!”, she announced. “I hate people like Sister Wendy, who popularise things and who are always trying to make people enjoy art by saying that it is fun. It’s not to be laughed at!”
Needless to say, this was not a friendship that was destined to prosper.
I yield to no-one in my belief that art is, indeed, highly important. It is meat and drink to me and to be in it, around it and with it is where I am happiest. It can be powerful, tragic and brutal (try Goya’s 3rd of May 1808 for a full-blown punch) or gentle and calm (maybe the landscapes of Corot?) and it can range through every emotion and state of mind, but that must include exuberance and joy. And the discovery of it all, finding out about it and making the links between one place and person and another, across time and space – well to me, that is fun. Just about the best sort of fun of all.
And that is what Simon Winder does so superbly well. Not only does he obviously get such pleasure from all he sees and learns, but he can articulate that in such a way that we can share that sense of delight in another piece of the jigsaw found or another link caught.
Simon Winder’s Lotharingia is published by Pan Macmillan (ISBN 978 1509803255). Germania (9780330451406) and Danubia (9780330522793) are both available in paperback and all three are very entertaining indeed.
Yesterday morning, on my way from A to B, I went through the backstreets of Covent Garden.
I didn’t have much time, but the sun was shining and a chilly wind was blowing. It was bright and fresh, with a sense of bustle in the air; delivery trucks were negotiating narrow streets, builders were shouting up and down scaffolded facades.
In the few minutes that it took to go along Maiden Lane and Chandos Place, cross the Strand and down Villiers Street, it struck me for the umpti-millionth time, how lucky I am to live in this wonderful city. So much to see, so much going on, so many colours and corners, shop windows and signs.
As I turned into Maiden Lane, Rules restaurant, all rich red awnings with swirling gold lettering and velvet curtains at the windows, was launching into another lunch-time. It looked opulent and unchanging.
Opposite, next to the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, a discrete entrance, topped by the royal crest, indicates the private portal available for royal visitors. Perhaps they came to see the daring French operettas performed here in the later nineteenth century? Alongside is a small plaque, commemorating the murder of the notable actor William Terriss in 1897. He was stabbed – on this very spot – by a fellow actor as he went into the theatre, the assassin eventually being committed to Broadmoor, where he died in 1937.
A little further along, on the corner of Chandos Place and Bedford Street, stands the splendid red brick and terracotta edifice built in 1876 by architects Lockwood and Mawson, builders of some of the finest public buildings in Bradford, for the Civil Service Supply Association. This grand sounding shop began as a co-operative venture by Post Office clerks, clubbing together to buy groceries more cheaply in bulk, with the resulting department store continuing to operate right through until 1982. On the Chandos Place façade another plaque records that Charles Dickens had worked in a building on the site between 1824-25 – when he was only 12 year sold.
This was the period Dickens spent working at Warren’s Shoeblacking factory, forced to work ten hours a day pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish to help support his family during one of his father’s financial crises. The trauma stayed with him for life, reappearing in different forms in many of his novels, especially in David Copperfield. However, his description of the blacking warehouse was that it was on Hungerford Stairs, which would place it on the other side of the Strand, very close to the river. These rat-infested wharfs and warehouses were swept away in the building of Charing Cross Station, the Victorian sewers and the Embankment.
Turning down Agar Street you find the remains of a famous act of cultural vandalism, still visible high up on the third floor of what is now Zimbabwe House. Here, opposite the classical elegance of buildings by John Nash and Decimus Burton is the angular modernity of 429 Strand, originally built in 1908 by Charles Holden (later to create some of the finest Art Deco Underground Stations) as the home of the British Medical Association.
Holden commissioned sculpted figures from Jacob Epstein to flank the windows on the third floor. So powerful and realistic were these images of the ages of man that there was an outcry and calls for them to be removed. While they did survive for a while, once the building had been bought by Rhodesian High Commission in the 1930s the sculptures were deemed ‘unsafe’. Despite protests, all the portions that protruded from the building were chipped away, leaving the figures without hands, feet, arms and faces. Only the ghosts of the figures remain – but enough to tell you that these were once powerful images!
Having crossed the Strand, I went down Villiers Street. The steep descent to the river is rather like a canyon, with the bulk of Charing Cross Station on the right and the narrow street getting darker as you approach Embankment Gardens. Rudyard Kipling lived down here for a while, in what I imagine must have been rather gloomy bachelor chambers.
But at the end of the road the gardens open out before the river, and you can see the tip of Cleopatra’s Needle shining in the sun. Nestling in the gardens stands one of the few surviving structures of Inigo Jones, builder and surveyor to the Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I.
This is the York Watergate, in effect the garden gate of York House – built for the royal favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham in 1626. York House was one of the grandest and most prestigious of the great houses of London with its garden coming right down to the waters of the Thames. With no Embankment in place the dukes and their visitors could come and go from their own landing stage, entering the ducal demesne through this magnificent portal.
Ten minutes on a sunny morning in London and I’d seen the site of a murder, some scandalous sculpture and a ducal back-door, not to mention pondering the childhood influences of our greatest English novelist.
To the Cotswolds – on a grey and windy Saturday at the end of October, with the promise of rain and a chill in the air.
The destination was Kelmscott Manor, the lovely seventeenth century house that became the home of William Morris and his family in 1871. Although Morris himself didn’t spend much time there (the complications surrounding his wife’s relationship with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti meant that he did not always feel comfortable in a place so redolent of Rossetti’s presence) he very much loved the ‘many-gabled old house’ and it’s rambling garden, lying close to a backwater of the River Thames.
Begun around 1600 the stone house was enlarged and altered by members of the Turner family during the following century, with the addition of barns and stables making it a substantial working farm. The family remained at the Manor until the death of James Turner in 1870, without making any further major alterations to the house, so when Morris viewed it in 1871 he was enchanted by the fact that it remained an unmodernised and complete seventeenth century building.
The grace and simplicity of the house, especially the white panelling in the rooms added in the late 1600s, had a profound influence on Morris and on the way he would design interiors. Looking at the rooms today with their mixture of Morris & Co fabrics, tiles and furniture coupled with paintings, ceramics and other objects the family collected, the effect is uncluttered, colourful and comfortable. The house rambles, with rooms opening out of each other, and has a sense of welcome and warmth.
Kelmscott Manor is now owned by the Society of Antiquaries, who have just unveiled ambitious plans to preserve the buildings in the way Morris would have wished (preservation rather than restoration), while also making it easier for visitors to learn about Morris and all his works.
Better visitor facilities will be opened up in the surrounding outbuildings, but I would suggest that they tamper at their peril with the current style of catering. On a chilly afternoon their spicy pumpkin soup with crusty bread was delicious and extremely welcome, while the array of homemade cakes looked scrumptious. Unfortunately, as the Manor is closed during the winter we will now have to wait until April to sample more of their delicious cooking.
When William Morris had guests staying at Kelmscott he would often take them over to Great Coxwell, about 6 miles away, to show them another remarkable stone building – the Great Coxwell Tithe Barn.
This magnificent structure is cathedral-like. Built around 1290, it formed part of the manor belonging to Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire and it remained a threshing barn until well into the 19th century. Wagons would bring their loads right into the barn, where grain would have been threshed with flails on the central threshing floor. Large amounts of crops could have been stored here in the dry and well ventilated interior.
In 1940 the artist John Piper chose the barn as a subject for one of his watercolours for the Recording Britain project – a mammoth attempt to illustrate buildings and places that could be swept away by war or by the relentless march of modernity. The project brought together over 1500 watercolours, produced by nearly 100 artists, and these are now part of the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Piper’s view of Great Coxwell is taken from low down, looking up at the barn on its slight hill, with a swirling dark sky above. As with many of his war-time images there is a tempestuous feeling to the background, with the barn appearing as a solid and age-old bulwark against storm-tossed times. Piper himself always claimed that his dark skies were simply the result of the concentration with which he observed his subjects but for many viewers they exemplified the country’s war-time struggle.
Nowadays the building is owned by the National Trust, who have restored the enormous roof and keep the barn open from dawn to dusk each day.
I’m very happy to be working with The National Gallery, teaching a course of six sessions on Italian cities of the Renaissance. We start tomorrow (September 19th) with a lecture on Florence, and then we’ll tackle Venice, Rome, Milan, Urbino and Mantua on the following Wednesdays. Do come and join us!
You can find full details here –
The coat of arms of the Medici Pope, Leo X ( Pope from 1513 to 1521) dominates the corner of the Archbishop’s Palace in the Piazza San Giovanni, in Florence.
The Chateau of Chenonceau is one of the great sites of France – built beside, and across, the river Cher in the heart of the Loire valley.
In the early 1500s the original builders began by demolishing an old castle and mill beside the river. The original castle keep was rebuilt in the new Renaissance style and a small and exquisite residence was created alongside. In 1535 the Château was appropriated by King Francis I in lieu of unpaid debts and the Chateau began its royal career.
In 1547 Francis’s son and successor, King Henry II gave the Chateau to his mistress, the beautiful and businesslike Diane de Poitiers. Henry was at that stage 28, Diane nearly twenty years older, and he had been fascinated by her for over twenty years ( they first met when he was seven!). This did not go down well with his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, to whom he had been married in 1533 – when they had both been just 14 years old.
Diane was an astute and intelligent companion for the King, encouraging him to raise a family with Catherine and advising him on diplomatic and state affairs. How that must have galled Catherine, who had fallen deeply in love with her husband when they were first married, despite his obvious infatuation with the older and more glamorous Diane.
In the dozen yeare in which she owned Chenonceau, Diane enriched and embellished her castle. She built the bridge across the river Cher, which linked the main building with the further back of the river and planted the first of the beautiful formal gardens beside the entrance.
However, in 1559 disaster struck. Henry II died as a result of a dreadful injury during a tournament (in which, incidentally, he had been sporting the colours of Diane de Poitiers rather than those of his wife, the Queen). Catherine lost no time in evicting Diane from Chenonceau, making her take on the smaller and less sophisticated chateau of Chaumont in exchange.
As Catherine settled into a widowhood that would see her act as Regent of France and principal advisor to three of her son’s in succession ( kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III), she also undertook to make Chenonceau into the most beautiful and magnificent chateau of the Loire.
She used the bridge built by Diane as the basis of the splendid two-storey Medici Gallery, stretching across the river Cher and providing space for magnificent parties and receptions. She incorporated the entwined letters H and C (for Henry and Catherine) in the lavish decoration of her private apartments, even including a portrait of herself in widow’s weeds above the enormous fireplace in what had been Diane’s bedroom. And she laid out her own formal garden, to complement that created by her predecessor.
From the tiny study and library of Chenonceau, she ran the country during some of the most difficult and turbulent times. At a period when women were not considered fit to rule in their own right she managed to keep the Valois monarchs on the French throne until her death in 1589. Quite an achievement for the little Italian princess who had been ignored by her husband.
Today the palace is crowded with visitors, exploring the royal rooms and the glorious gardens. The exquisite planting of the formal beds and the richness of the enormous vegetable and flower gardens are carried into the Château through constantly changing displays created by floral artists working in a studio in the chateau’s home farm. These fabulous arrangements – pieces of art in their own right – bring an immediacy and glamour to the palace that both Diane and Catherine would certainly have relished.
On a beautiful summer’s day, what better than to explore a glorious garden with sweeping avenues, intriguing woodland walks and herbaceous borders packed with every conceivable type of flowering plant.
Anglesey Abbey, a few miles outside Cambridge, has all of this, as well as a lovely manor house rebuilt and refurbished by the splendidly named Urban Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven. A wealthy man, with a passion for collecting and a love of racing, a comfortable country house close to Newmarket was the perfect setting for his eclectic selection of paintings, sculptures, clocks and books.
In 1926 he and his brother began the transformation of a run-down Victorian manor, which incorporated the remains of a twelfth century Augustinian Priory, into a gracious and elegant home. Having grown up in America, his notion of comfort was that of the grand houses of Long Island, so plentiful and well-equipped bathrooms were added next to the many bedrooms. Expansive sofas filled the sitting rooms and the huge library was an oasis of quiet and comfort.
The house was run on grand and imperious lines. Timekeeping was exact. A Rolls Royce was dispatched each evening to Cambridge to fetch the evening papers and guests found that their shoes, returned to them each morning beautifully polished (of course), had also had their shoe-laces ironed.
The creation of the garden is perhaps Lord Fairhaven’s greatest triumph, with items from his collection of sculpture dotted liberally amongst the avenues and vistas of the 98 acre park. With an artist’s eye he grouped trees, created a lake, added serpentine pathways and wide open spaces – forming a complex garden where you never quite know what will be around the next corner.
A disused water mill, falling to rack and ruin at the edge of his property, was saved and used as a garden store. This picturesque building has been restored over the years by devoted volunteers and is now a working mill once more.
At his death in 1966, Lord Fairhaven left Anglesey Abbey to The National Trust, anxious that, in some way, his rapidly vanishing style of life should be preserved for future generations. We may not get our shoelaces ironed, but in his beautiful house and garden we can get some idea of the grandeur and wealth that could order a world and make leisure into an art form.
I first heard about Kettle’s Yard when I was at school, in the sixth form. An impressionable point, as I was soaking up anything about paintings and their histories with rapt attention, not quite believing that my own enthusiasm could be turned into a legitimate form of study.
One day Brenda Willoughby – a painter herself and our somewhat combative art teacher – showed us a film about Jim Ede and Kettle’s Yard. I doubt that I fully grasped where the house was (it would be years before I got to Cambridge and finally visited it) but I was captivated by the idea of living so closely and completely with works of art and objects – things of your own choice that were so personal and so loved.
I guess the film was a BBC documentary. I remember the black and white images; slow panning shots of the interior of the white walled cottage and its modern extension, filled with paintings, drawings, comfortable furniture and beloved objects. And pebbles. Lots and lots of pebbles; beautifully arranged and complemented by driftwood, fresh flowers, plants and pots.
Jim Ede, who, together with his wife Helen, had created the collection housed in the converted cottages, talked about the importance of living with art and making your own environment, filled with the things that you loved. He felt that the works and the objects only came alive when people were there to interact with them. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I know that I was fascinated, moved and thrilled by the possibilities that his ideas opened up to me.
And I’ve felt the same each time I’ve visited Kettle’s Yard; walking up the path to the cottage door and pulling the bell rope which seems so like something out of Winnie the Pooh; walking into the downstairs cottage rooms, small and white and dotted with paintings, and filled with simple comfortable chairs and gate-leg tables. There is a timeless quality to the buildings and to the arrangement of the works, simple and inviting, encouraging you to settle and read, contemplate and enjoy.
My teenage experiments with driftwood and pebbles weren’t particularly successful, but the idea of collecting things that made me happy, mixing them together with pictures, books and oddments has never left me. For Jim Ede, living with pictures and getting to know them was of paramount importance. He lent works of art to interested students in Cambridge, so that they could get to know them in their own rooms and, in 1966, he and his wife gave the Kettle’s Yard complex and its collections to the University so that future visitors could continue to use and enjoy it’s tranquil serenity.
Now reopened after major building work, the house is as welcoming and serene as ever. The artworks, by a whole host of artists including Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood, gleam against the white walls. The comfortable armchairs beckon.
On the small round table in the cottage window downstairs is the beautiful spiral of pebbles that I had first seen on film all those years ago and – on a table nearby – a large flat stone. On this the sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay carved, in beautiful lettering, a perfect description of the place;
‘KETTLE’S YARD, CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND, IS THE LOUVRE OF THE PEBBLE’