Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman review – an intimate tale of a life in art

This fabulously detailed account of the great collector’s treasures, artist friends and the Cambridge art gallery home he built with his wife, Helen, is a fitting testament to his cunning, determination and impeccable taste

On New Year’s Day 1956, Jim Ede, then 60, wrote to his friend, the painter and poet David Jones, of a “quixotic scheme” he had for the remaining years of his life. Ede, who had been a curator at the Tate Gallery before the second world war, and a pioneering collector of the art of his friends and heroes – Jones, and the St Ives group of painters, and Miró and Brancusi – outlined in that letter an impulse to create a modest and lasting monument to what he had learned about art and about life.

Ede had in mind, he wrote, “a place of beauty in a town”, a home that would be open to students and to the public and allow him to share “all that I have in pictures and lovely objects”. It took him the best part of that year to find and buy four semi-derelict cottages just over Magdalene Bridge in Cambridge, once home to a playhouse owned by a Mr Joseph Kettle. Ede set to work making every corner of his Kettle’s Yard gallery a still life. For nearly 20 years he and his wife, Helen, welcomed the curious into their home. Ede, who died in 1990 aged 95, gave personal tours of the paintings and sculptures and the favourite found objects – pebbles and feathers and shells. He encouraged students to borrow original pieces to decorate undergraduate walls. Visitors were invited to sit down at the kitchen table with Jim and Helen for tea in china cups and hot buttered toast with marmalade cold from the fridge.

Laura Freeman’s biography of Ede is in part a life of the objects that he collected and the stories they tell. Each of her chapters begins with a picture of a Kettle’s Yard treasure and takes flight from there. Freeman, chief art critic at the Times, writes with an exact enthusiasm about the things she describes. Ede thought of his paintings and sculptures as favourite house guests, and the reader of this book might well come to imagine them in that way too.

At the heart of it, and from the beginning, Ede cuts a singular figure. “When Jim was 12,” Freeman writes, “when all the boys were buying the bicycles that were all the Edwardian rage, he bought a Queen Anne desk for £8.” A sensitive child of middle-class Methodist parents – his father was a Cambridge-educated solicitor with a practice in Cardiff – he was both nearly destroyed and saved by the first world war.

Ede never thought not to join up – though how could he, “who believed in love, friendship, art and beauty” and who was enthralled by Helen Schlapp, beautiful daughter of a German professor? His ordeal in the trenches, however, meant at least that his stern parents would indulge his desire to lead an unconventional life: he might be a bohemian, they reasoned, but at least he was alive.

Freeman intimates a life of unspoken homosexual desire in Ede. Still, he loved his wife. When they married he looked so “young and flustered” that the registrar at Chelsea asked Helen if her betrothed was a minor. “No,” she sighed, “he’s an art student.” The point of art, Ede insisted, “was not to make maps but to adventure”. In this spirit, he and Helen first set up home in Hampstead with their two daughters, then moved to a modernist house Ede built in Tangier in the 1930s, then led a wandering life out of a Buick in the US during the war as Ede lectured on art at universities to support relief funds back home, then bought an idyllic cottage in the Loire valley, before settling in Cambridge. At Kettle’s Yard they had separate bedrooms, connected by a speaking tube.

Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, showing a Buddha from Thailand (13th or 14th century) and works by Mario Sironi, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Ben Nicholson.
‘A place of beauty’: Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, showing a Buddha from Thailand (13th or 14th century) and works by Mario Sironi, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Ben Nicholson. Photograph: Paul Allitt

Freeman documents their long lives in fabulous detail. Some of her source material is an unpublished memoir Ede wrote in his 80s; some comes from the compulsive letters he wrote to TE Lawrence – whom he befriended through the Tate – and Jones, and the Nicholsons and the self-taught Cornish artist Alfred Wallis, who Ede helped make an art-world star. The gaps are filled with interviews with surviving friends and relatives, undergraduate visitors to Kettle’s Yard – everyone from Edmund de Waal to Nicholas Serota. Ede had pivotal walk-on roles in many more famous lives; the visitors’ book at his grand, unaffordable house in Hampstead records wonderful dinners and parties with Henry Moore and Graham Greene and Edith Evans and John Gielgud and Vanessa Bell. Here, he is given centre stage.

Stories tumble over one another: of the great flood at the Tate (then called the National Gallery of British Art) in 1928, with Ede up to his waist in water trying to save the Turner seascapes; of Ede’s attempts to persuade Johanna Bonger, widow of Van Gogh’s brother Theo, to sell some of her paintings – including Sunflowers – that she had stacked in a back bedroom, and then to persuade his reluctant bosses at the Tate to buy them.

Ede “was young, fun, enthusiastic, full of ideas and ignored”, Freeman writes. That latter judgment perhaps provoked the best investment that he ever made. In 1926, the life’s work of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the young genius French sculptor killed in the first world war aged 23, was “dumped in the Tate boardroom”. Ede’s insistence that they were in the presence of “a Michelangelo in miniature” led to him being dismissed “to supervise the cleaning of the gallery windows”. He trusted his eye, though, and with a little subterfuge bought the entire collection of Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings and letters for £60.

If Kettle’s Yard remains the expression of that collectors’ eye, this book gives you the backstory of all the cunning and determination that went into creating it. From beginning to end, Freeman employs first names for Ede and his circle – Jim and Ben and Winifred and Henry. The choice is right because this is a book that involves you so closely in the lives of its subjects that you think of them as friends, alive to their plans and schemes, their fallings in and out of love. Freeman’s attention falls on each particular of Ede’s life and turns it over like a polished pebble in a jacket pocket. Along with his gallery, this book is the legacy he might have wished for.

  • Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman is published by Jonathan Cape (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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