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Kettle’s Yard University of Cambridge
House cottages, upstairs, the Bechstein roomPhotography by Paul Allitt. Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

The Story of the Mysterious Man Behind Kettle’s Yard

Laura Freeman’s new book chronicles the remarkable life of Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Here, she talk about how he “made his own way of life”

Lead ImageHouse cottages, upstairs, the Bechstein roomPhotography by Paul Allitt. Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Laura Freeman writes with a briskness that enables the emotional potency of the stories she tells to flourish without pretension. The Times’ chief art critic’s new book, Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists, narrates the romance, struggle, passion and peculiarity of the late art collector’s life. Best read at a pace of decades-per-sitting, Freeman’s writing explains with immaculate articulation how Ede’s naive love of art and infallible sense of self guided him through a world perhaps not built for people like him, where he eventually created a home for art and artists that still breaths in synchronicity with its guests today.

The journalist and author’s debut, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite (2019), saw her drawing on her own lived experiences, and while this latest offering focuses on the friendships, art and adventures of Kettle’s Yard founder Ede, Freeman’s emotional connection to her subject adds colour to every page. Traversing a pandemic and a pregnancy while researching and writing the book, Freeman followed Ede’s map of the world with no alternative destinations available. Reflecting on the intensity of the experience, she explains, “There’s something very strange about having written a lot of this book during the two lockdowns, because writing a book can be quite lonely, even at the best of times, but usually at the end of the day you pack up your laptop and you go out and meet friends for dinner. This wasn’t like that. At the end of the day, there was nowhere else to go.”

Below, AnOther spoke with Laura Freeman about the writing of Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists.

Milly Burroughs: Why was it important to you to tell Jim’s story?

Laura Freeman: My relationship with Kettle’s Yard goes back a long way. I went there in freshers’ week and just totally fell in love with the ambience, the vibe, the air – there is something special about it. I studied history of art at university and became a journalist. In 2018, I was sent to cover the opening of the Kettle’s Yard extension for The Sunday Times. It was kind of wonderful to go back there as it had been closed for a couple of years, and I just thought it was mad that no one had written Jim’s story. I sent Andrew Nairne, the director of Kettle’s Yard, a one-line email asking if anyone was writing Jim’s life, and if not, could I? And that was it really. I feel very honoured and privileged to be able to tell Jim’s story because we know him through the house, but we didn’t know him as a person yet.

MB: The book documents Jim’s relationship with an impressive cohort of artists and peers. By the end of it, he has outlived almost all of them, including his wife and his dearest friend Ben Nicholson. Reading those pages, I was left existential, wondering whether there is something after life, whether we get to be with those people again. How did it feel to write the end of that story?

LF: People have told me they cried when Helen died, and then you get these awful deaths one after the other – David Jones and Barbara Hepworth, Winifred Nicholson, Ben Nicholson, and then Jim himself. I cried writing those chapters. It’s not just that you’re saying goodbye to a book that has taken up a huge amount of your life, you’re saying goodbye to these people who almost become your friends. My dad once said, “You know, I think you’re companion-ed by these people.” And I absolutely was.

I don’t know about an afterlife. I don’t know what it would look like. Jim lived to 95, having been born in 1895. He basically was the 20th century. He saw it all. I think he very much felt that it wasn’t the end because he had left this incredible legacy of art. He left this house that people still make a pilgrimage to. I think we don’t necessarily die, so long as the books, the art, the places we create go on living.

MB: This is clearly a book with a huge depth of research behind it. How did you even begin to approach that?

LF: Kettle’s Yard director Andrew Nairne had said to me for years that the Jim archive was just boxes in the attic that were labelled ‘Jim’s stuff’. Archivist Frieda Midgley had marshalled Jim’s stuff into some sort of sensible order, but there were still hundreds of boxes. I interviewed more than 80 people who had known Jim and visited Kettle’s Yard in the 60s and 70s. We went to Tangier. We went to America, down the east coast, visiting all the galleries and museums that have been important to him. We took a trip up to Edinburgh to see the two houses where he lived later in life, and visited the church he used to worship at. You have to travel in someone’s footsteps. You’ve got to go to the places they went to. Jim read a lot of Henry James, so I read a lot of Henry James. He was very fond of walking around barefoot, so one day at Kettle’s Yard I took off my shoes and padded around barefoot just to see what the floors felt like.

MB: This process must have unearthed so many different aspects of Jim. Are there any that surprised you?

LF: Maybe a misconception we take away from Kettle’s Yard is this idea that Jim is this serene figure at ease in this beautiful setting. I think the biggest thing I’d love other people to take away is that he was fun. He was brilliant company and his letters are funny. He’s excitable, he’s temperamental. He’s neurotic. He was a dandy. He was a party guy in his youth. There are so many different sides to him.

“He [Jim Ede] left this house that people still make a pilgrimage to. I think we don’t necessarily die, so long as the books, the art, the places we create go on living” –  Laura Freeman

MB: The book leaves the impression that Jim was an unconventional member of the art world aristocracy – he dropped artwork, couldn’t afford to serve wine at his own parties, worked low-paid jobs, wore the wrong clothes and made decisions that nobody believed in – yet he carved a space for himself. I’m curious what you think this says about him, and the art world?

LF: Part of the reason the book is called Ways of Life is because it’s very hard to say what Jim did or was. He’s not an artist, he’s an author, but he’s also a collector and a curator, and also a lecturer. He made his own way of life. He worked out what he wanted to do, but there’s no obvious path. I think it is true that it is incredibly hard to become a senior, or even junior curator today. There’s an expectation that you’ll have done an undergraduate and an MA and a PhD, and you’ll do an unpaid internship. Who can afford to do that when paying rent in London?

MB: There’s a chapter where you talk about how Kettle’s Yard is, and always has been, seen as an antidote to the “stuffiness” of Cambridge. Why do you think that is?

LF: It’s a home. I think that’s what people love about it. It’s not a gallery. The flowers are changed all the time. You can sit in the chairs. You can go into his bedroom and his bathroom. I love that there’s a loo, and there’s an Alfred Wallace on top of the loo. It’s just very intimate and immediate, there are no ropes or alarms going off because you’re too close. You can take a book off the shelf and sit at the upstairs table and read it. If you get there on the first day of term as a student, you can borrow a painting and hang it on your own wall. They still have weekly concerts because the house needs to be full of music because it’s still got to live. It’s an amazingly sensory and tactile place that feels like it still has a relationship with the outside world.

MB: I enjoyed being introduced to the quirks of Jim’s life, such as proposing to his wife Helen at Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road, and making time to paint on the morning of his wedding.

LF: I think it’s terribly sweet. There’s a lovely story where Jim is rather flustered and the marriage officiant says to Helen, “He seems terribly young.” She just rolls her eyes and says, “He’s an art student.” They didn’t really have a honeymoon, they just walked along the river. Jim picked up some shoes he’d had mended, they ate sandwiches on a bench, and that’s it. They’re married. It’s so tender.

MB: Jim’s story is so moving, and the way you narrate his life unearthed feelings I will carry with me for some time. How do you feel now the book is out in the world?

LF: When I submitted the manuscript it did sit very heavily with me. I think I expected to send it and feel like a weight had been taken off my shoulders, and I actually felt almost more crushed by it. I felt very sad, letting it go. I think what’s been so lovely with it finally being published, has been hearing other people talk with such fondness and joy about their experience at Kettle’s Yard. It makes all those lonely hours at the laptop worth it.

Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman is published by Penguin and is out now.