Kettle’s Yard: The ‘Louvre’ of the Pebble

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;