When I started working at Kettle’s Yard in 2006, one of the first tasks was to learn ‘the Kettle’s Yard way’. The house had been the home of Jim and Helen Ede from 1957-1973, and their collections of artworks, textiles, ceramics, glass and found natural objects were all still arranged just so. Jim had a singular vision for Kettle’s Yard – to demonstrate how life and art could be seamlessly intertwined – and their home became a living, breathing installation. Every afternoon, Jim welcomed the general public and University of Cambridge students. Visitors were invited to sit on the chairs, browse the books, and enjoy the respite and calm. Every object was carefully positioned in relation to the adjacent objects and the available light source, coming either from the windows or reflected in mirrors. There was no hierarchy in the arrangement either – a pebble off the beach was as precious as a Brancusi sculpture – and Jim created an amazing sense of balance and order. The house still has a quiet rhythm to it that rewards slowing down and looking closely.
I moved on from Kettle’s Yard in 2013, but those seven years left their mark and I’m still a bit obsessed with pebbles, shadows and negative space. The experience of working inside one person’s passion project came flooding back to me when I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) in Boston last week. Gardner (1840-1924) was a very wealthy art patron and a prolific collector. Advised by the likes of Bernard Berenson, and a friend to artists such as James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, she collected a dizzying array of Renaissance & Baroque paintings, period furniture, stained glass, and religious statuary, as well as substantial chunks of architecture, including enormous fireplaces, stone window frames, marble pillars, and elaborate ironwork. Her museum was built to house her eclectic collections, laid out over three floors with a dramatic internal courtyard in its centre (she lived in an apartment on the fourth floor). The museum opened in 1903, and she welcomed visitors in to explore her own unique vision. It was stipulated in her will that the museum would be given over to a trust on the condition that nothing was moved, nothing was added, and nothing was sold. So what you see today remains faithful to her idiosyncratic plans.
Visiting the ISGM was a strange mix of being very familiar (both Jim and Isabella were obsessively attentive to detail and took total authorship over every aspect of curation) and very foreign. You could not imagine two more different aesthetics – Jim was all cool restraint and muted palettes, while Isabella was a colour-soaked, drama-heightened, ‘more is more’ kinda gal. Jim had a sensitivity to empty space and took great care to put as little as possible in a room, whereas Isabella seemed to have a serious case of horror vacui and didn’t mind if picture frames jutted out from walls or hung over door jambs. And yet, they also had a huge amount in common. Both insisted on no labels next to the artworks, and rejected a chronological or thematic hang, preferring to use their eye and their instinct to determine what should go where. Both liked unconventional approaches to the display of artworks; Isabella frequently hung paintings and panels across the diagonal in the corner of a room, like a Russian icon, and Jim would prop framed drawings and paintings against the wall, but with the lower edge resting on the floor – he liked the implication that they could be picked up and moved at any moment.
Both Jim and Isabella had a love of light and shadow, and positioned works and objects with this in mind: Jim was interested in how shadows move at different times of day and during different seasons, and he set up elaborate juxtapositions that would only reveal themselves fleetingly; Isabella favoured the steadiness of northern light (which is more consistent than sunlight coming into east- or west-facing rooms) and positioned her favourite paintings accordingly, close to north-facing windows. Rumour has it that Jim would position in direct sunlight any paintings that he considered to be too colourful, to knock ‘em back a bit. Isabella had her house fully wired – a novelty at the time – but only used electric lights on the first and fourth floors, preferring candlelight (!!!) for the two central floors. She dictated where every wall sconce should be positioned, and aligned the fall of light in the room with the light source depicted in the paintings. Perhaps most importantly, the greatest commonality between Jim and Isabella was their desire to be generous with their collections. They hoped for visitors, both present and future, to be deeply moved – these ‘museums’ deify art and beauty, and wish to convert audiences to fellow believers.
Set in aspic, both Kettle’s Yard and the ISGM reflect the times in which they were created, and are kept alive and vibrant through residency schemes, temporary installations, and learning programmes. In a country that prides itself on customer service, I was particularly struck by how happy and helpful the staff were. I got the distinct impression that ISGM has become a passion project for those who worked there, and they probably have their own ‘ISGM way’ too. On the day we visited, the place was buzzing with art students, who were liberally scattered about doing observational drawings and chatting amongst themselves. Even though it was created from a singular vision, it continues to have a broad and diverse appeal.
I was sometimes asked if I knew Jim because I (apparently) spoke about him with such immediacy. I didn’t, unfortunately; he died when I was still in high school. My theory is that when you’re working so intensively in someone else’s passion project, you can’t help but feel that you have a sense of the person too. The energy of ISGM was so familiar, and I’ve decided it’s like a spiritual great-aunt to Kettle’s Yard – slightly bonkers, wonderfully eccentric, and totally fabulous.
HEADER IMAGE: ISGM Courtyard