A modest row of cottages is set apart from Cambridge’s Castle Street by a small green on one side and St Peter’s Church on the other, right next to Cambridge University’s ancient Magdalene College and the backs of St John’s. You’d be forgiven for barely noticing the terrace that makes up Kettle’s Yard. Entering the house through the front door – unchanged from the time Jim Ede, its founder, and his wife Helen lived here – is less like stepping into a gallery, and more like stepping into a home. The first room you encounter, after the small entrance hall, is the dining and living space, in which a meticulous arrangement of perfectly round pebbles, shells and freshly cut flowers from the garden sits atop a low wooden table, and chipped porcelain cups line the mantelpiece. You don’t especially feel that you’ve entered a unique modern art gallery until you notice the Joan Miró and Ben Nicolson paintings on the walls.
This is very much the feel of Kettle’s Yard. Domestic items such as pot plants, chipped crockery, books, cushions and chairs are intermingled with paintings and sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Frank Auerbach and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The house is unlike any gallery I’ve ever been to. It is both relaxed and inspiring, precious and welcoming, a place to admire but also to sit in, read in, become part of. Some paintings are hung low, so low that you must sit in a nearby chair in order to properly see them. Each time I go back, I learn or notice something new.
Because Kettle’s Yard is not simply a collection in a house but also an innovative contemporary art space with a recently completed expansion, I thought it would be interesting to talk to Andrew Nairne, its director since 2011, about the ideas I had on rhythm, space, collectivity, and art. That Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is one of the most prominent artists in the house and had his own interesting ideas about rhythm, was almost a bonus.
Tell us a bit about Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and his relationship with Kettle’s Yard.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was a French artist born in the 1890s, who died aged 23 in the trenches in France in 1915. From 1911 he was in London, and in those very short years before his death he established himself at the forefront of avant-garde sculpture. The only reason that Gaudier-Brzeska became famous is because in 1930 Jim Ede, who went on to found Kettle’s Yard, published a biography of the artist called ‘The Savage Messiah’. The book was really about the letters between Henri and his girlfriend Sophie Brzeska. He took her name in order to pretend that she was his sister, because she was 38 and he was 18, and they wrote to each other because they were ill all the time.
In the 1920s, Jim Ede was a curator at Tate [National Gallery of British Art as it was called until 1932] when the whole Gaudier-Brzeska estate landed in his office. Tate was very conservative in its collecting tastes in the 1920s and 30s, and was not particularly interested in this unknown French artist who died young in the war, but Ede immediately spotted how extraordinary these sculptures and drawings were. He asked a friend to buy the estate, and then bought it off him. So, in a way Kettle’s Yard, which opened in 1957 and since 1966 has been part of the University of Cambridge, is the house of Gaudier-Brzeska. Of all the artists, Gaudier-Brzeska is in every room; there are drawings, sculptures, casts of sculptures. And Ede spent his life promoting Gaudier-Brzeska as a really significant artist.
Gaudier-Brzeska’s work, as you see in house, is a fascinating mixture of what one might call very naturalistic work – a portrait sculpture of somebody that looks like a head – and the absolute opposite; a head where, instead of eyes, nose and a mouth, you have a triangle. So he had two artistic lives in parallel. He was doing the traditional busts because he needed to make money, but he was also part of Vorticism, the British version of cubism that was led by Wyndham Lewis, and was friends with Jacob Epstein and Ezra Pound. Gaudier-Brzeska’s work came only a few years after Picasso made the big breakthrough with Cubism in 1906/7, and anything that anybody did that was close to abstraction between 1906 and the First World War is considered to be critically important.
What are the links between Gaudier-Brzeska and rhythm?
Well firstly, when he arrived in 1911 in London, aged 16 or 17, he could already draw beautifully but had had no formal training. He started going to life classes and was baffled by the fact that everyone would just stand there and complete one drawing per evening. He thought multiple drawings should be completed from multiple angles. We have many drawings done during this period which were completed with him dancing around the life model. A lot of people describe Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculptures and drawings as having an amazing energy, and in some cases a rhythm, which is a word that appears in quotes from Gaudier-Brzeska himself.
In 2015, we did a big exhibition called ‘New Rhythms: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Art, Dance and Movement in London 1911–15’, because in many of his drawings there’s energy, movement, and specifically dance. Our research found out that there were many influences on Gaudier-Brzeska, and one of them was a whole series of new dance crazes before the war. He had an actual interest in dance, and Jenny Powell [Head of Exhibitions, Collection and Research and Kettle’s Yard] discovered a wonderful passage in a letter by Sophie in which she describes Gaudier-Brzeska dancing manically around the kitchen.
The show was based around two key sculptures in Kettle’s Yard, both of dancers, and both with rather different notions of rhythm. They were made in the same year, 1914, but they had different styles completely. The first is called ‘The Dancer’. At first sight, it’s a very traditional image of a youngish female dancer. There was a certain way of making sculptures of dancers, when they are in a particular ballet pose, but interestingly Gaudier-Brzeska chose one that was between poses, which is rhythmic in a way. The other sculpture is called ‘Red Rock Dancer’, which is a cast in bronze of the original which is now in the Tate collection. This is a Vorticist sculpture; it is angular, strange and does look like a figure but isn’t in any way representational. Vorticism had a theory around the idea of the still centre, and the Vorticists explored whether they could make a still centre in something latent. The challenge of all art is not to make something dead as soon as it’s finished, but to give a painting or a sculpture continuous life and an internal energy which makes them meaningful for years to come.
Gaudier-Brzeska was exploring the idea of the vortex, the still centre around which everything else swirls. He was also questioning whether art could be a place for still moments of thought and intelligence in a crazy time, as the country prepared for war. He wanted rhythm to be imbued or embodied within a sculpture or drawing, to give art life and reflect life at the moment.
How would you compare his drawings and his sculptures? Is there something at work in the drawings that you don’t quite get in the sculptures?
I think he absolutely wanted to see how much he could do in as few lines as possible. But again, you’ll find that there’s a contrast between him trying to capture an experience in just a few lines, and when it’s more obvious that he’s pushing the boundaries of whether you can see it as representational, whether you can see it as holding up a mirror to the world or doing something rather different.
And do you think using as few lines as possible is to do with the truth of capturing something in the moment?
Yes, absolutely, being in the moment is absolutely crucial. Others would have spent ages on their pieces. Gaudier-Brzeska wanted to explore how to really express something, and how to express something that you can’t actually see.
Do you think that he felt that the drawings were better able to express the movement in the moment?
Yes, I think so, although a sense of this life and energy does come through in some of the sculptures. If we take this quote from the essay written by Jenny Powell, Head of Exhibitions, Collection and Research at Kettle’s Yard, in the catalogue for New Rhythms about Red Rock Dancer; ‘[An article in The Times in 1914] describes ‘the vortex of present day life, the whirlpool into which the hustle and bustle of everyday movement converges’. The twisting body of Red Stone Dancer, frozen in stone but waiting to release its energy from the block, embodies something of this ‘whirlpool’ of life and the ‘energy’ of the vortex that Gaudier describes’. Getting the viewer to walk around a sculpture is something that Anthony Gormley and other great artists do now. Sculpture isn’t flat or against a wall, so the viewer is bound to walk around it with your eye. As you do so, you essentially experience a different sculpture all the way around.
So let’s talk about Kettle’s Yard. What did rhythm mean to Ede? What does it mean in the house?
Kettle’s Yard is famous for this exceptional arrangement of not just art, but pebbles, chairs, mugs, and glass, and balance was at the forefront of Ede’s mind as he arranged. Both he and Gaudier-Brzeska spoke about art in these terms. Gaudier-Brzeska said ‘We need to create a balance in art in order to stop the world dying out’. For Ede, balance was necessary to create a sense of meditative stability which allows you to focus but not escape. Ede didn’t want Kettle’s Yard to be a place of escape; he wanted to sharpen your sense of where you are and what the world is, so that you leave feeling more able to address the world in a better way.
In the house we often use Ede’s word ‘balance’, but I think you could also say that there’s a rhythm by the way he organises these neatly spaced pebbles along a mantlepiece. There’s a rhythm to the whole idea of placing, and Ede would have been happy with the word rhythm, because I think he would have seen it as something that’s potentially a collective and positive thing that people can join in with. Rhythm suggests order. The gaps between objects and art suggest a rhythm that you can choose to join in with, or that might just allow you to pause in a world of flux. He believed that objects had a power about them; they had a power to connect to the viewer.
I often talk about how the house has a remarkable number of cracked and mended plates, jars, plates. This reflects partly the era of the two World Wars where you didn’t throw things away in quite such a disposable culture, but also Ede’s belief that there’s beauty in the most modest, impoverished, humble objects. A Joan Miró painting, one of the great artists of the 20th century is placed next to an arrangement of pebbles that are worth nothing, and that anyone could do if you took the time and trouble, and a goblet that’s cracked and chipped. Ede gives us the chipped version because he thinks it’s still worth showing. In a way that reflects back on the viewer; we’re all a bit chipped, nobody’s completely perfect. People appreciate Kettle’s Yard exactly because it has this sort of democracy of display, which raises questions around what we value, what art does and what objects do.
Ede’s experience in the trenches affected absolutely everything he did afterwards, and this creation of Kettle’s Yard was a necessity for him. It created a space for him, a refuge or sanctuary. The exact arrangement in the house is the exact opposite of a bomb coming from nowhere from the German trenches, landing and blowing your friend to smithereens. After the chaos, horror and fragmentation of war, he spent the rest of his life wondering how to hold the world and gain some sense of purpose and control in the midst of this uncertainty and chaos. One answer, I think, is to create houses where people would come across very beautiful objects and art in a comfortable environment, and where people would notice the balance and rhythm.
We came across a passage from late in his life where he describes Kettle’s Yard as ‘a space, an ambiance, a home’. He doesn’t say ‘a museum’, because he never wanted it to be that. There are no labels in the house, you can sit anywhere, you enter through the front door. But these three things are not written by chance. ‘A space’ links to modernism and contemporary art, but also the idea of creating your own space. ‘Ambiance’ links to Tangiers in Morocco, where Ede lived on and off for twenty years. And then, ‘home’; we all think home is important, but it is particularly so if you’ve been in a war. This notion of home is really powerful, and when Ede says, ‘a space, an ambiance, a home’, it isn’t just that he wants people to see beautiful artworks that you’d normally see in a gallery, in a homelike environment. It’s more than that. It’s home as an idea.
If, then, to Jim Ede, Kettle’s Yard is a ‘home’ and not a museum, how does that work with you and your job? What do you find challenging when curating exhibitions, in relation to the house and the cottages?
We now have some new galleries that opened in 2018, which compliment the scale and the importance of the house. We’re doing around four exhibitions a year of both artists that are in the house and contemporary artists, such as Oscar Murillo. We try and choose artists that we feel have some kind of connection to Ede’s concept of the house. He was interested in how art and life are constantly interwoven, how art is not a separate sphere but connects to real life.
In a way the expression of that is the home. He hangs many of the paintings in the house very, very low, which at first seems a bit strange, until you realise that you’re meant to be sitting down to look at a piece of art, that’s the whole point. Increasingly in contemporary exhibitions, if an artist is showing in the gallery we’ll also show them in the house. With Murillo, for example, we suspended a number of his drawings from the ceiling. We’re always trying to think about what we can put in the house that doesn’t entirely disappear or just look like it’s always been there, but acts as a guest or a friend. In general, the artists we work with love the house. Take Julie Mehretu, for example. She was born in Ethiopia in 1970 but has been in the US since she was ten, and is now one of the world’s most famous artists. We did a show in our smaller gallery of eighty monotypes and drawings, but she also showed some drawings in Ede’s bedroom in the house, and she made those stories partly in response to the idea of him.
I often think what people spot is this juxtaposition – maybe it’s this rhythm again – between significant artworks by Ben Nicolson, Barbara Hepworth and Brancusi, and the fragments, shells and other little bits and pieces. The book that he made is called ‘The Way of Life’, and he wanted to feel that the house had some sort of continuing life. The house is a curatorial masterpiece, it’s an artwork in itself, with balance, energy, and rhythm built into it. He thought that people coming to it were given life. We have a quote on our front door from a letter that he wrote to a student in the sixties, and it just says ‘Come in as often as you like, the place is only alive when people are in it’. It was critical for him that people were there, doing things in the space.
Image credits (from top)
1. (Cover image) Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wrestlers, 1914
2. Kettle’s Yard. Photograph: Paul Allitt
3. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wrestlers relief, 1913 (posthumous cast, 1965)
4. (left) Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Red Stone Dancer, 1913-14
5. (right) Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Dancer, 1913 (posthumous cast, 1967)
6. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Girl with skirt blowing, 1912 (circa)
7. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Male and female nude, 1913
8-10. Kettle’s Yard. Photographs: Paul Allitt
All images courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge.
This is part of RHYTHM, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring rhythm as individual and collective, as poetic and biological, and the ways that rhythm dictates life. RHYTHM is conceived and edited by Rachel Goldblatt.