This, it is made clear to the visitor, is no ordinary, no vulgar museum. In fact it is not a museum at all, but a house. The front door is kept closed as if it were still the private dwelling of the Ede family, so every visitor or group of visitors has to tug at the bell-pull to gain admittance.
The guardians stand behind the door ready to welcome you. Ladies of the utmost respectability, they invite you to write your name and, they add, a trifle fruitily, "your full postal address, please" in the book on the entrance hall table. If they are not too busy they will, in a manner that would certainly have fascinated that talented Brit-spotter Bill Bryson, find amiable small talk about how the nights are drawing in, or it's not as cold as it might be. You feel that if Her Majesty's Government were ever to issue identity cards to recognised and paid-up members of the English middle class, these ladies would - ever so sweetly - ask to see yours.
But, flummery aside, this house contains a fine hoard of 20th-century pictures and objets d'art brought together by those avid collectors Jim Ede and his wife Helen. As assistant at the Tate Gallery in London in the early Twenties, Ede met and became friends with the painters Ben and Winifred Nicholson. They, he recounts "opened a door to contemporary art and I rushed headlong into the arms of Picasso, Brancusi and Braque". Meanwhile Winifred Nicholson taught him the importance of fusing art with everyday living, a lesson that continues to be taught, mutely, to every visitor to Kettle's Yard and which in my opinion is its strongest raison d'etre.
Fortunately for us, too, Ede, as one of Ben Nicholson's rare admirers at the time, was offered works that no one else fancied, and was asked for no more than the cost of the canvas and frames. There are now 44 at Kettle's Yard. Something similar happened with the painter Alfred Wallace; the house now has 100 of his pictures. In 1926, a decade after the artist's death, Ede also had the opportunity of buying a large lot of Gaudier-Brzeskas that no one else could be bothered with.
But then came pictures by Mir, David Jones, Lowry and Gabo; pots from Lucie Rie and Bernard Leach, and sculptures from Barbara Hepworth, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and many others. Ede wanted to make his collection more widely available and from 1957 he developed a group of four small condemned cottages. There he housed the pictures and objects, keeping the collection open every afternoon in university term-time. It continued after his death and does so still, the main difference today being the large extension designed by Sir Leslie Martin, which was opened in 1970.
The collection is a tremendous artistic resource and, as a graduate of England's older university, this correspondent is naturally keen on anything that raises the standard of culture in Cambridge. Having enjoyed a visit, you can still have reservations about the collection and the way it is displayed. There is a certain lack of bold colour; greys and other soft tones predominate. On my visit I was reminded constantly of that other house now open to the public, Pablo Neruda's house at Isla Negra on the Pacific in Chile, and I wished for some of the strong colours and adventurous objects, from flags to anchors, which litter it.
And surely there is room to doubt the wisdom of an enterprise that seeks to preserve such a living thing as a house unchanged for posterity. It is true that you can sit in the chairs, read the books and admire the flowers that are kept fresh in the vases. Yet despite all the semantics, and the effort to preserve a domestic feel, Kettle's Yard is a museum. An unusual museum, an enjoyable museum, a unique museum, run with competence today by the University of Cambridge, yet still a museum. While recognising the imperfections of the place, you cannot but agree with Ede that "There should be a Kettle's Yard in every university".
The full postal address of Kettle's Yard is Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ (01223 352124). It opens daily except Monday; 2pm-4pm for the house, and 12.30pm-5.30pm (2pm-5.30pm on Sundays) for the exhibition gallery. Admission is freeReuse content