Modern British & Irish Art

The Enduring Influence of Kettles Yard

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart

A sk a collector of Modern British Art about the first piece that they ever bought and they will typically recall with a great warmth the exact date and location that they discovered it. Ask the same collector about the first time that they visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and you will most likely be met with much the same excited recollection and enthusiasm. It is no exaggeration to say that the former home of Jim and Helen Ede on Cambridge’s now bustling Castle Street is a Modern British Collector’s site of pilgrimage.

Formerly a curator at the Tate Gallery in London, Ede moved with his wife to Cambridge in 1956 in search of a home and more importantly a place to display and present their growing collection of what was at the time the best in contemporary art. Ede wanted

‘a living place where works of art could be enjoyed … where young people could be at home unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery…’

With the assistance of the architect Roland Aldridge, Ede restored four tumbling and near-derelict cottages sitting in the shadow of St Peter’s Church and created a relaxed and informal setting for much of the art work that they had collected during their time in London, including many pieces bought directly from the artists with whom they forged close and lasting friendships.


In the house Ede displayed works by friends such as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Winifred Nicholson alongside European artists Constantine Brancusi, Joan Miro and Naum Gabo positioning them in relation to simple furniture, functional (and sculptural) ceramics by Lucie Rie and William Staite Murray, glass and found natural objects such. The house also contained the largest collection of works by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, purchased by Ede in the 1920s after the nation refused to buy them.


The collection was conceived with students in mind, and each afternoon Ede welcomed them for guided tours and discussions of the ever-growing art collection. Before his retirement to Edinburgh in 1970 Ede gifted the house and its contents to the University of Cambridge and for a small deposit students were permitted to loan works during term time to hang on their walls, thus further expanding on the ideals that Ede initially envisaged.

2018 marks the reopening of Kettle’s Yard after an exciting and extensive programme of refurbishment and expansion, creating new exhibition spaces and preserving the original parts of the house which remain open to the public, and each year see thousands of visitors pass through. Kettle’s Yard continues to inspire a new generation of artists and makers, but also, as it has done for well over half a century now, it inspires collectors in the display of paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and ceramics. Who hasn’t propped a picture against a wall, rather than choose to hang it, or gathered an artful arrangement of pebbles from a shoreline to decorate a mantelpiece or tabletop.

Ede and the Kettle’s Yard aesthetic has taught us that there should be no hierarchy in what we collect, and that a simple eighteenth century glass can have the same aesthetic appeal as a masterpiece painting by Ben Nicholson, and that untrained or ‘naïve’ artists such as Alfred Wallis, James Dixon and Bryan Pearce can hold the same power and passion for what they create as Brancusi and Hepworth. Ede’s collection at Kettle’s Yard showcases the very best in Modern British Art, but also shows us all that the passion to collect knows no bounds, and really is open to everybody.


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