Friday, 15 July 2011

Small is Beautiful: Kettle's Yard and the Fry

'Von Ribbentrop in St Ives' at Kettle's Yard
Thank you to everyone who came to my Ravilious talk in Saffron Walden on Wednesday, and to the organisers - Nigel and Iris Weaver and staff at the Fry Art Gallery. I was just reading a post by Jonathan Jones about cuts at Tate Liverpool and it made me appreciate all the more the virtues of small, quirky galleries. I feel the same about bookshops, but we'll come back to them another day...

I had to go to Cambridge en route to Essex and, while there, braved the bikes and crowds of French schoolkids muddling about in the road to visit Kettle's Yard. I hadn't been for years and had completely forgotten that the permanent collection lives not in the gallery but in the house itself, the former home of Tate curator and collector Jim Ede and his wife Helen.

Having worked at the Tate during the 1920s and 1930s, Jim amassed a diverse collection of British art from the period, and in 1966 he donated house and contents to Cambridge University. His vision was to create not 'an art gallery or museum, nor ... simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period.'

HS 'Jim' Ede at Kettle's Yard
Christopher Wood, Jean Bourgoint, 1926
Instead he sought to preserve 'a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.'

At a time when exhibitions tend to be dominated by great walls of explanatory text, it is a pleasure indeed to wander around this eccentric dwelling, looking at paintings in a domestic context and, quite naturally, unlabelled. With interest in 20th century British art on the rise, I can think of few better places to see work by Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Winifred Nicholson, David Jones, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Christopher Wood and others, alongside work by modern European artists. The selection is eclectic, reflecting not the depth of Ede's wallet but the warmth of his friendships. The paintings, sculptures and other objects BELONG in the house and are all the more enjoyable for that.

Kettle's Yard interior
The strangeness of the experience is heightened by the fact that you have to ring a doorbell for admission, much as if you were popping round to visit a friend; the staff are helpful but you can't get hold of a guidebook (which has a numbered plan of all the art) until you've been all the way round. When I was there a woman was trying to buy a guidebook but had given up her handbag, as requested, at the front door. You'll have to go and get it, she was told firmly - NOT the handbag, JUST the purse.

From there it's a half-hour drive to Saffron Walden and the Fry Art Gallery, where 'Ravilious in Essex' is entering its final month - 4000 visitors and counting. The Fry was also established by public-minded collectors, a succession of them in fact, going back more than a century - it takes its name from a scion of the Bristol family of chocolate makers who owned it in the 19th century. Nigel and Iris Weaver discovered the place in a ruinous condition when they moved to Saffron Walden in the 1980s, restored it and in 1987 opened the building to the public once again. Like Tate Britain in miniature, it is a gorgeous building with a fascinating permanent collection.

With a focus on the artists of Great Bardfield (John Aldridge, Edward Bawden, Tirzah Garwood/Ravilious, Kenneth Rowntree...), the Fry has become the principal port of call for admirers of Eric Ravilious, who lived in north-west Essex for the last eleven years of his life. Paintings, lithographs, Wedgwood china and wood engravings are beautifully presented, with a collection of the artist's wood blocks a particular treat.

David Oelman at the Fry... now those books look familiar!
Both Kettle's Yard and the Fry have mildly eccentric opening hours, so do check before you set out. I was just too early for the Kettle's Yard show 'Von Ribbentrop in St Ives', which opens on July 16th. 'Ravilious in Essex' runs until August 14.


  1. I wish I get to it! Is there a catalogue of the entire exhibition? (I already have the latest 'Ravilious in Essex' book)

  2. The Fry has a mini catalogue but I'm not sure if it's comprehensive - most of the paintings are in our book, all but about three, I think.

    It is lovely to see 18 or so watercolours hanging in one room - you can really immerse yourself...

  3. Thank you for the quick answer! Alas, it's too far away for me to get to, but it looks amazing with all the artworks hung together.

  4. I would love to visit these places some day. Do you have plans to bring your talk "Up North"?

  5. Now there's an idea - actually I'm trying to arrange some talks around the country, probably at or near museums where they have Ravilious paintings - I'll post info as I get it... thanks for your interest!

  6. I think they have some at the Ashmolean, though I don't know which ones - so if you ever come over Oxford way, book me in!

  7. Don't forget Stoke-on-Trent, the Potteries Museum surely will have some of his Wedgwood pieces? Also The John Rylands in Manchester will no doubt have his illustrated books.

  8. Thanks for the tip, acornmoon

  9. Thank you for this post, James. Brought back fond memories of my first visit to Kettle's Yard as a student when I came face to face with my first Wallises - and met the lovely Jim Ede. Quite a landmark for two struggling students.