Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists 
by Laura Freeman.
Cape, 377 pp., £30, May, 978 1 78733 190 7
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Harold Stanley Ede​ , who was known for most of his life as Jim, lived through nearly the whole of the 20th century. Born in 1895, he died in 1990, having, as his modest epitaph in St Peter’s church in Cambridge puts it, ‘created Kettle’s Yard and helped to preserve this church’. Kettle’s Yard, the house and gallery that still holds Ede’s collection of 20th-century art, as well as hosting exhibitions and concerts, is the place where generations of undergraduates, including me and, somewhat later, Laura Freeman, first encountered the work of Miró and David Jones, Henry Moore, Brancusi, Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Gaudier-Brzeska and others. Like Ede’s life it spans the century; but, more than that, for those of us who had not grown up in houses where there were grand pianos or interesting pebbles thoughtfully arranged to catch the light, it was an introduction not only to the work of particular painters and sculptors but an experience in itself, an idea about what art and life could be.

Jim and Helen Ede in Tangier, 1937

It was a generously portable idea. A drab student room, you realised, could be improved with a few of the right postcards, some well-chosen stones, a bowl of fruit. For some years Ede himself lived on site and showed visitors around. With reckless generosity he lent original works to undergraduates, and though he was gone by my day, something of that intimate ethos lingered and survives still. Towards the end of his life, Ede reflected to his goddaughter that he had been ‘so lucky … to be able to invent what I want to do – and do it’. What exactly that was, however, or what exactly Ede himself was, eludes classification. He was a collector, up to a point, though he never had much money; a patron, but only in a small way; an aspiring artist who never made a career of it; a one-time curator at the Tate whose suggestions were mostly ignored and who retired early after years of frustration.

Ede was already sixty when he embarked on the venture that became Kettle’s Yard. It was the culmination of all that had gone before in his own life and the world events he had lived through, particularly the First World War. Freeman characterises it as ‘the great adventure’ of his life but the reader may disagree, having been so entertainingly and expertly led through the many other adventures that occupy the first two-thirds of the book. Perhaps Ede’s was not thought to be enough of a name to warrant the full biographical treatment without the more famous ‘Kettle’s Yard Artists’. But a successful biography is made by the author not the subject. Beneath its slightly whimsical presentation in undated sections with titles like ‘Mirror’, ‘Whitestone’, ‘Three Personages’ (and in fairness Kettle’s Yard does have its whimsical side), Freeman has written a perceptive Life of a traditional cradle-to-grave kind.

One of Ede’s half-serious fantasies about himself was that he had Phoenician ancestors. It was a liberating contrast with his real immediate family, the Methodist parents with whom he grew up in Wales. His father was a solicitor and his mother a teacher of Latin and Greek. It was a household that valued learning and Edward and Mildred Ede were not so straitlaced as Jim was wont to suggest. They were, however, children of the 1860s. Jim liked to tell the story of the silver paper knife his father brought home on one occasion with a handle in the shape of a naked woman, and how his blushing mother had called her ‘“a shameless hussy” and hid the knife under a clock’. Like stories about covering up piano legs, it was Ede’s generation’s way of laughing off what Lytton Strachey called ‘the colossal complication’ of the Victorian age, a period that was both close in time and irrecoverably alien in sensibility. The First World War would make the chasm unbreachable, but even before 1914, the Bloomsbury generation’s distaste for its parents was marked and often expressed in terms of domestic furnishing. Victoria herself was described by Strachey as ‘a magnificent, immovable sideboard in the huge saloon of state’.

The light, space and clarity of Kettle’s Yard was part of the reaction to Roger Fry’s ‘age of the ottoman and the whatnot’, and Ede was in revolt from childhood. At twelve he had saved £8 from his pocket money and, instead of the expected bicycle, used it to buy a Queen Anne desk, which he kept all his life. He didn’t enjoy his first school, in Taunton, although his older, sportier brother, Max, was quite happy. Ede’s parents, in one of many moments that reveal them as more sympathetic and imaginative than Jim painted them, took him away and sent him to school in France. He came back from Caen for the holidays via Paris, where he stayed with his glamorous Aunt Maud, an artist, and her husband, an art historian. They ‘redeemed Jim’s childhood’, taking him around the Louvre, introducing him to Puvis de Chavannes and improving his taste, which had veered towards the sentimental and religiose.

At his next school, the Leys in Cambridge, he was a contemporary of D.W. Winnicott, who became a lifelong friend. In an early sign of things to come, on a school holiday visit to the Winnicotts’ house in Plymouth, Ede rearranged the furniture in their drawing room, turning the ‘cosy nooks and corners’ inside out and getting Donald to help him shift the piano. This was, in essence, what he did for the rest of his life, putting objects and people – often making little distinction between those categories – into relationships such that a certain mood or effect would be generated. What he wanted, though, at this point in his life and long after, was to be an artist. His parents were resistant to the idea of art school until Jim had – or, as he later suggested, induced – a complete breakdown. ‘Sleeplessness, lassitude, headache and almost an inability to walk’ got him out of the Leys and into the Newlyn School. At first his parents decreed that he should not be allowed in the life class but eventually he wore them down on this point too, only to discover that he had mixed feelings about nudity, especially female nudity.

His parents’ attitudes and values continued to vein his character. They were broad-minded in certain ways, and Ede inherited that flair, but he also shared some of the inhibitions he decried. As a friend and patron he ‘gave with the generosity of the Magi’, as Freeman puts it. He was a celebrated host to artists, writers and other lost or wandering souls, but his father’s frugality lived on in his horror of small extravagances. In his thirties it took all his resolve to order a taxi when Picasso invited him out to dinner in Paris. Having bitten the bullet, he waited outside Picasso’s apartment to give him a lift, only to see him emerge and step straight into a chauffeur-driven limousine. There was always something of the ‘high thinking and plain living’ about Ede. Kettle’s Yard’s particular kind of austere elegance suits Cambridge and its Puritan, parliamentary history. It could never have happened in Oxford.

Still in pursuit of an artistic career, Ede enrolled at the Edinburgh College of Art in 1913 and fell in love at first sight with Helen (or Helene) Schlapp, a half-Scottish, half-German fellow student. He was not alone in being smitten. A Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’ in the Rossetti mould, Helen had been painted as Isolde on Iona and been dressed up in Arts and Crafts gowns since her teens. She was now striding about in tweed and hobnail boots. With a distinctive Scottish-German accent and a voice that ‘could cleave the heads off tintacks’, it was Helen who christened Ede ‘Jimmy’ or Jim. He knew at once that he would marry her. The idea was so fully formed in his mind that he seems to have thought it unnecessary to say much about it. This made for an uneven courtship, with Ede thinking they were as good as engaged and Helen wondering if he was ever going to kiss her.

In the early summer of 1914, Ede was in Paris looking at art and full of nervous frustration with his own ability to create it. Two months later with the outbreak of war came the moment in which, somewhat surprisingly, Ede, the neurasthenic aesthete, became the hero of his own life. Appalled by the idea of the conflict, all the more so for the fact that Helen was half-German, he might have been a conscientious objector, or plausibly demonstrated his unfitness for service. Instead, he enlisted. He thought, shrewdly, that the pacifists were ‘the pests of the present and the saints of the future’. Persuaded by his father to take a commission, he grew a moustache, wrote a will and by autumn was on the Western front. Officer status did not ensure him an easy time. Shells, gas attacks and ‘trench gastritis’ meant he could think of nothing else but war. ‘All one’s interests have faded away.’ Invalided out for a period, Ede was posted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was responsible for officer cadet training, and in 1917 he was sent to serve in India with the 34th Sikh Pioneers. He loved India. He took an interest in Buddhism, learned Urdu, and thought about Trinity – the quiet of its courts and the intense blue of the Copeland dinner plates at High Table. The blue had been so consoling that when, years later, he heard that the college was replacing the service he bought the lot. Coming home via Alexandria he haunted the ‘native quarter’ (which was out of bounds to servicemen), drank coffee and bought slippers.

By May 1919 he was home and had enrolled in the Slade School of Art in London. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he said little in detail about the war, except that for most people ‘it took normally twelve to fifteen years even outwardly to get over it.’ His brother, the more robust Max, had been struck in the head by shrapnel at Thiepval in 1916 and was sent back to the front a year later. After the war he ‘never wanted to do anything exciting again’; he practised as a solicitor and lived a quiet family life near his parents. It was the apparently more fragile Jim who now embarked on a life of adventures through which the violently contrasting experiences of the war and its aftershocks resonated. One of the most important Kettle’s Yard artists, and one of Ede’s greatest friends, was the painter and poet David Jones, whose long poem In Parenthesis W.H. Auden was not alone in thinking the greatest book about the First World War. It emerged after long gestation. Ede, opening his copy when it arrived one morning in 1937, was at once moved to tears. The other artist who, as Ede put it, ‘bound’ his life, although he never knew him, was Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died in the trenches in 1915. The preservation of Gaudier-Brzeska’s legacy was perhaps to be another attempt at reparation.

In​ the immediate postwar period, Ede had two ambitions. He wanted to be an artist and he wanted to marry Helen. He duly proposed to her in Heal’s, and she turned him down. It was, he later admitted, his ‘Mr Collins moment’. Failing to realise how much of their relationship had been in his own head, he assumed, in defiance of Helen’s forthright character, that this was mere maiden modesty. In fact it was she who thought him less than serious, this skinny, effeminate dilettante. But he was persistent, and he loved her. When they finally arrived at the Chelsea Register Office, Jim looked so thin and distracted that the registrar asked if he was a minor, to which Helen replied: ‘No, he’s an art student.’ The tone of their long, complicated but fundmentally happy marriage was set. There was no money but, in another of those magnificent gestures that make the reader want to spring to the defence of Ede’s parents, Jim’s father not only bought them a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, he put it in Helen’s name as an insurance in case Jim left her. His mother was overheard saying that Helen was too good for him, an opinion she seems never to have modified.

Practicality of a sort dawned in the form of a job at the National Gallery as a ‘photographer’s boy’. This involved indexing the photographic collection and acquiring in the process an education in art history. Ede knew by now, having looked at Van Gogh and felt ‘so moved, so disturbed and so enthusiastic’, that he would never be a great artist himself, but here he was at least among pictures he loved. Then he was transferred to the National Gallery of British Art at Millbank, generally known as the Tate (now Tate Britain). Administratively twinned with the National Gallery, the Tate was devoted at this stage in its history to what Freeman calls ‘historic as well as modern (but not too modern) British art and foreign (but not too foreign) modern painting’.

Nothing could illustrate more clearly the chasm between the generations than Ede’s travails at the Tate. It is one of the incidental interests of Freeman’s account that it offers a sharp sidelight on a moment in British art history that was also a crux in Ede’s life. It was for him the worst and best of times. On the one hand, he hated most of the collection, the Pre-Raphaelites, the ‘facile’ Sargent and the sickly Lord Leighton. On the other, he had access to the Tate’s headed paper and made use of it, writing, without authorisation, to artists and dealers. In 1923 he went to Amsterdam to visit Johanna Bonger, the widow of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who still owned most of Vincent’s work. Madame Bonger offered him six ‘outstanding’ pictures at a quarter of the market rate. The Tate turned them down. It was still buying, at considerable expense, works by Alfred Munnings, that warhorse of Edwardian art.

Ede began to make friends in artistic circles in London and Paris. Despised at the Tate for his peculiar taste and, more reasonably, his inadequacies as an administrator – he once left the staff wages in a bag on the bus – he was at the same time moving in the most brilliant artistic circles of the interwar years. As well as Picasso he met Chagall, Brancusi, Miró and Braque, who was charmed by the Edes’ London home: ‘Tous les conforts, pas de téléphone.’ In England his friends included Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Henry Moore and Christopher Wood. He never met the self-taught Cornish painter Alfred Wallis but supported him and bought his work. It was at the Edes’ dinner table that Moore and Barbara Hepworth had their famous argument about which of them was the first to put a hole in a sculpture. While the Tate resolutely refused to allow him to pursue his contacts during working hours, or to acquire any of the art he admired, Ede established in his office a kind of anti-Tate, surrounding himself with works that comforted and excited him. Jones lent him some unsold pictures and Ede acquired several Woods, Nicholsons and Wallises as well as Brancusi’s Poisson d’Or. Some were loans, some were gifts, others the outcome of complicated transactions, swaps and ‘the IOU and the Who-Owes-Who’ whereby Ede, whose finances Freeman confesses remain ‘something of a mystery’, acquired a world-class art collection on what was never more than a middling income.

He was good, too, at getting to know the patrons who were the big players in the art world in the 1920s and 1930s. One friend, the civil servant Eddie Marsh, who inherited a share of the compensation paid to Spencer Perceval’s family after the prime minister’s assassination in 1812, used what he called ‘the murder money’ to build a huge collection. He bought and lent generously but also looked after artists he liked, ‘paid for honeymoons and holidays … applied hot poultices’ and ‘above all … gave attention and appreciation’. Ede did the same, on a more modest scale. There was his complicated relationship with the heiress Helen Sutherland, whom Freeman conjures up in a lightning sketch: ‘In town, she wore exquisite suits, grey silk shirts and perfect hats. In the country, a soft tweed cloak and fur-lined boots (size three).’ Sutherland was one of the first people to buy work by Mondrian and Gabo as well as Hepworth and the Nicholsons, and her activities confirmed the worst suspicions of the artistic rearguard about ‘the folly of letting an unmarried woman loose with a lot of money’.

Among Ede’s closest friends, Jones and the Nicholsons, there were ups and downs. Ben Nicholson left Winifred for Barbara Hepworth but announced he would like to live with both of them alternately, claiming that this was ‘the new morality’, to which Jones tartly replied: ‘Come now Ben. You’ve got a nice young girl to sleep with. Lucky you!’ The art also took a battering. One night when the famously highly-strung Jones was staying with the Edes they heard a crash. Ede at once sensed that Jones had knocked over William Staite Murray’s tall vase, Heron, which Murray had said should never be in ‘an atmosphere of nervousness’. Ede himself dropped the Poisson d’Or, denting the nose. (Brancusi fixed it.) The Ede circles overlapped only here and there with Bloomsbury. With the occasional exception of Duncan Grant, Ede understandably thought little of them as painters and considered their criticism over-intellectualised. His only Bloomsbury friend was Ottoline Morrell, whom he appreciated, despite seeing her comic side: when he took her to the fair, she arrived swathed as usual in yards of chiffon topped with a toque, and fell off her horse on the carousel. They shared a belief that objects had personalities, that a piece of furniture has ‘such a definite character and mind of its own that if it doesn’t like a room it is hopeless to induce it to look well or happy. It [has] to be moved.’ It was at her home at Garsington Manor that he saw the bowls of potpourri and pomanders made from oranges stuck with cloves that would feature at Kettle’s Yard.

On 27 April 1926, the life’s work, worldly possessions and archive of Gaudier-Brzeska and his Polish companion Sophie Brzeska were ‘dumped’ in the boardroom of the Tate, which was at the time also Ede’s unofficial office. The posthumous estate had arrived via the treasury solicitor after Sophie died in 1925, intestate, in a mental hospital. The Tate authorities thought little of the art and resented the space it took up. Ede was intrigued. He read Ezra Pound’s book on Gaudier-Brzeska and, as he lived among his art, he felt its pure force – the inevitability of line and form, and the compelling story of Gaudier-Brzeska himself, in whom the tragedy of the Great War was again retold. The Tate wanted to dispose of the stuff, much of which, including Sophie’s diaries and Gaudier-Brzeska’s carving tools, they thought valueless. Ede, into whose soul the iron had entered after all the rejected Van Goghs and Picassos, embarked on a series of dubious high-wire manoeuvres around the truth in order to secure most of it for himself. If the means were nefarious the cause was just and the preservation of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work and reputation became Ede’s sacred mission. It took him years, but from the thousands of letters and diaries Ede acquired he fashioned an account of the couple and their story. It appeared in 1931 as Savage Messiah. Ede, though he freelanced as a reviewer, was not a gifted writer, but here he had a great subject, characterised by one critic as ‘the world’s weirdest romance’. As biographies go the opening paragraph is hard to beat:

It was the strange meeting of two people with violent temperaments, widely different in age and experience, utterly unsuited to each other, and yet destined to live together for the next five years, and in the end to die violently as they had lived, the one on the battlefield, the other in a madhouse.

E.M. Forster nervously pronounced it ‘unusual’. Dorothy Parker told everyone to read it at once. It was a great succès d’estime, if not a bestseller. What it cost Ede in the reawakening of his own experience of the war can only be imagined.

It​ is at this point, halfway through the book, that Freeman raises the question that has hovered in the reader’s mind for some time – that of Ede’s sexuality. He certainly loved his wife, and theirs was not a mariage blanc: they had two daughters, Elisabeth and Mary, and he loved them too, if in a rather abstracted way. They are often out of view, staying with relatives or the Winnicotts. Ede missed Mary’s wedding. Interviewed by Freeman at the age of 94, she still resented the fact that she didn’t have piano lessons because he had sent the money to Alfred Wallis. Yet it was a real family, with all its flaws. Ede seems never to have been unfaithful, but he had crushes, ‘mayfly’ friendships and sometimes more emotionally intense relationships with men. Freeman makes no attempt to explain what no biographer can know about feelings so deeply internalised. She leaves the facts and Ede’s own later reflections to speak for themselves. Looking back, he thought that his feelings for Helen had been ‘first and foremost what you call “a spiritual love”’. There had later been ‘the pain of love stirring in the body’ but it was something that, over time, he ceased to feel until ‘sexual energy doesn’t exist for me.’ For a man born in the year of Oscar Wilde’s trial and raised in his parents’ austere household, it would have been almost unthinkable to act on his feelings and, as Freeman suggests, it was not perhaps merely a question of inhibition but distaste for extravagance of any sort, emotional or physical, that governed his decision to settle instead for ‘symbolic gestures of touch’, the tactile comfort of objects, the perfect pebbles and small sculptures that he always carried with him.

Meanwhile, his frustrations with what he called ‘the bishop’s question’ at the Tate continued. After a lecture on Van Gogh a bishop in the audience had asked: ‘Why should a chair not look like a chair?’ Why should it be distorted and a funny colour? The Tate was dominated by ‘bishops’ and Ede could get nothing past them. He did manage to get Rex Whistler a commission for a mural in the gallery dining room and would no doubt be exasperated but unsurprised to know that the bishop’s latter-day descendants have deemed it so offensive that the whole restaurant has been closed. In 1936, in the teeth of opposition from his father and friends, he resigned. From then until he hit on the ‘quixotic’ scheme that became Kettle’s Yard, he and Helen had their Wanderjahre. These were glamorous in some ways. The Edes built a house in Tangier, toured the United States, lived in France for a while, but in other ways it was an unhappy and unsatisfactory time. During their two and a half years in America their ‘only home’ was their car, a Buick accessorised with a small collection of portable art. The house in France had wisteria all over it but no plumbing and they froze. Money was elusive. Ede’s hopes of success on the lecture circuit came to little, and the enforced separation from their daughters weighed heavily on Helen. Mary believed that the two years they were apart during the Second World War hurt her mother ‘unrecoverably’. Returning to Britain in 1943 the Edes were shocked by the ruined state of London and Jim, like many of his contemporaries, was depressed at being unwanted for the war effort.

Slowly, from the personal and material ruins of the postwar world, the idea of Kettle’s Yard formed in his mind. It was the architect Leslie Martin who found the cottages, named after a Joseph Kettle who lived there in the 18th century, and Ede saw them for the first time in November 1956. Freeman might have made more of Martin’s involvement both in the conception of Kettle’s Yard and its final form, for which his practice built the extension. He was, in one sense, a convenient and obvious choice: professor of architecture at Cambridge, another friend of Nicholson, and a collector of Gabo and Hepworth. But he was also an important figurehead of modernism, designer of the Festival Hall in London – the first postwar building to be listed. Ede’s admiration for him belies Freeman’s suggestion that her subject failed to move with the times after the 1940s. Her main evidence for this, the fact that he never liked Ben Nicholson’s abstract reliefs, is perhaps a reflection on them as much as on Ede.

Kettle’s Yard became the manifestation of his mental life. A cabinet of curiosities, a mind museum as much as Sir John Soane’s, it tells the story of a life and a century. It partially answers the question of what Ede was by a demonstration of his ‘eye for the invisible’, as he put it, and what might be described as his form of synaesthesia. He spoke of understanding pictures sometimes ‘with my ears rather than through my eyes’. The first time it happened was with William Blake’s watercolour David Delivered out of Many Waters. On another occasion he asked Eric Ravilious for one of his pink and blue George VI coronation mugs, explaining that he didn’t want the blue, white and yellow version because it was ‘too boisterous – makes too much noise in a small house’.

Ede talked to pictures and missed them when they were away. When he lent six Nicholsons to a retrospective in 1969, he complained that he had just been saying something to one of them when he realised it wasn’t there. He consulted the furniture, as Morrell did, about where it would be happy, and spent hours finding a perfect pebble. Miró’s Tic Tic, a key piece in the collection, was accessorised with a pewter salver on which there was, still is, always a single lemon of exactly the pale yellow of the lower dot in the Miró. Some people find this affected, even deranged, as some people found Ede, but the result has an unquestionable lucidity. Since 1966 Kettle’s Yard has belonged to Cambridge University. The Edes moved out in 1973 and Helen died in 1977. She remained where she began for Ede, in his mind. ‘Till death do us part,’ he wrote, ‘is an empty phrase to me.’

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Vol. 45 No. 12 · 15 June 2023

Rosemary Hill’s piece on Kettle’s Yard reminded me of my first visit in the early 1970s (LRB, 18 May). I wandered happily for some time until I noticed the place had gone very quiet. Going downstairs I found that I was locked in and the staff and visitors were all gone. Fortunately the lock was only a Yale so I quietly let myself out, shutting the door behind me. A more recent visit revealed that security has been considerably tightened.

Ormond Simpson
Kenilworth, Warwickshire

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