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Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge: Where God dwells in perfect balance

12 April 2024

Christian faith was key to the formation of Kettle’s Yard art gallery — and should be part of its story, says Robert Hawkins

Paul Allitt

Jim Ede’s bedroom table at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Jim Ede’s bedroom table at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

KETTLE’S YARD, Cambridge, is a special place. Although today it has a substantial contemporary art gallery attached, its core remains the precious home created between 1957 and 1965 by Jim and Helen Ede. Jim had been a curator at the Tate in the 1920s, and had lifelong friendships with some of the foremost artists of the day: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, David Jones, Constantin Brâncusi, among others.

The Edes moved from house to house, amassing a substantial collection of these artists’ works, as well as furniture, ceramics, and found objects of natural beauty — pebbles, shells, driftwood. They settled in Cambridge in their sixties, and it was Jim’s intention to create a house that would bring these objects into meaningful relationship, embodying “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”.

For Jim, that “underlying stability” was inseparable from his Christian faith. And yet, visitors to Kettle’s Yard today find very few clues to the belief, spirituality, or theology that underpinned the project. A guided tour of Kettle’s Yard tends to emphasise Jim’s meticulous and exact curation, his obsession over details’ being just so, and various points of biographical curiosity, such as the type of tea that he served to visiting undergraduates.

Jim’s tastes are portrayed as catholic only in the sense that he was as ready to find beauty in a pebble as in a Brâncusi. The delicate arrangement of space and light in each room is attributed to Jim’s need for calm and for beauty after the trauma of the First World War.

A case in point is the famous Kettle’s Yard lemon. Positioned in a grey pewter dish near the front door, below a deep blue Joan Miró, the lemon is given as an example of Jim’s love of finding echoes and harmonies across rooms and between objects. It had to be just the right size of lemon, we hear, to chime with the yellow spot in the Miró above it. What we do not hear is why this mattered. But Jim was clear: the lemon “gave me a much needed chance to mention God, by saying that if I had to find another name for God, I think it would be Balance”.

It didn’t stop with the lemon. There are more explicit Christian references in some of the artworks: a glass lamp by David Peace is engraved with the text “VERE DOMINUS EST IN LOCO ISTO” (“In truth God inhabits this place”); there are David Jones’s calligraphic inscriptions and symbolically laden drawings; the Book of Common Prayer sits alone by Jim’s bed. Sometimes, visitors notice these.

I once asked a guide about Jim’s Christianity. “Jim was interested in all faiths,” I was told. True enough. Yet he chose to be baptised and confirmed as an Anglican while assembling Kettle’s Yard — surely this amounted to more than an “interest”? In Ede’s own account of the house, Kettle’s Yard: A way of life, the theological nature of the project is unignorable. Almost every page is a quotation from St Paul, St Augustine, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart. A double-page spread is given to the final dedication: “To God, ever present”. In Ede’s own telling, then, God mattered a great deal.


THE Kettle’s Yard tour guides are not alone in being reluctant to tell this half of the story. Laura Freeman’s 2023 biography of Ede, Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard artists, deals only briefly with Jim’s faith, treating it as something of a biographical curiosity and an episode of crisis in later life. Freeman’s suggestion is that Jim engaged seriously with Christianity only when reflecting on his sexuality and worrying about sin. In this telling, Jim’s faith is somehow repressive — but, in Jim’s own writing, faith offers a joyful language for expressing his love for the world and his search for depth and meaning.

Most of all, faith seems to have been part and parcel of Jim’s aesthetic sensibility. He believed that the world’s beauty was rooted in God, and that artists could make this visible for us. For Jim, as for many of his artist friends who were Christian or Christian Scientist, works of art were, therefore, acts of praise and outpourings of religious feeling.

Faith was not a concern only of Jim’s later life: it was a lifelong search. He was brought up as a Methodist, and always had a keen sense of God’s immanence. He remembered his 13-year-old self: “What he called God was his reality, the love of God infused almost his every contact, his friendships, the flowers in the fields, the sky, the school routine, sleep and waking, all were to him worship, carried on the drive of his religious fervour.”

At art school, he and his contemporaries “talked much about art and religion”. Then, during the First World War, he discovered transcendentalism through the poetry of Walt Whitman, and this strengthened his feeling for a “universal love”.

His reading began in earnest: from Augustine to Evelyn Underhill, via Aquinas, The Cloud of Unknowing, Pascal, Thomas Traherne, and St Thérèse. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, his friendships and his writing were shaped by a searching spirituality. With the Nicholsons, he flirted with Christian Science concepts; with the collector Helen Sutherland, he wrestled with the doctrines of Anglican and, later, Roman Catholic theology, testing them against his instinctive sense of God-in-everything.

Paul AllittKettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

If Jim took a long time to enter the Church formally, it was perhaps because he took his faith so seriously. He wrangled with doctrinal questions throughout his life. He struggled to reconcile his sense of the oneness and transcendence of God with the divided nature of the earthly Church.

On this point, he corresponded with the Benedictine Abbot Philip Jebb, at Downside Abbey, and even with Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk and writer, who sent him books and encouraged him to persist in prayer. He felt drawn to the mystical, negative tradition, the “path of unknowing”, and so was sometimes sceptical about what could be said positively about God, preferring theological understatement to overstatement.

An undergraduate visiting Kettle’s Yard once confessed to Jim that “he didn’t know about God; the nearest he’d got was to feel that we have an urge to make of life a good thing.” Jim agreed that “he’d got about as far as we can get.” Yet Jim could not let the Church go. He had a persistent sense “of belonging to a single universe of love and of not being able to regard love as a casual incident in a casual universe”.

As he settled his difficulties one by one, guided by his friends, he had a sense of parting veils and proceeding onwards into darkness. It was never easy: “The veils can be very thick going through,” Philip Jebb agreed. Simon Barrington-Ward, Chaplain and then Dean of Magdalene College, down the road, joked that Jim prepared him for Jim’s confirmation, and not the other way around (Jim wanted various bits of the service to be changed).

He never lost this fierce honesty and individuality when it came to God. But, at last, he was indeed baptised and confirmed, in St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, at the beginning of Advent 1959.


IT WAS the Roman Catholic artist and poet David Jones, more than anyone else, who had helped Jim toward a more orthodox faith, through the concept of the sacramental. A sacrament, a visible sign of an invisible grace, became the foundation for Jim’s thinking about artworks and objects, offering him a way of holding together the particular and the universal, the material and the divine.

Years before Kettle’s Yard, Jones had introduced Jim to the Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose thinking on art and sacramentality informed Jones’s own. Art, for Maritain and for Jones, had the power to make the world strange, and thereby reveal the abundant, divine reality beneath it.

Jim saw that Jones “sees much more than the actual world in seeing the actual world. His touch with reality, as much as any living artist I know, goes back to a well of essential life. It is the grand unchanging reality which underlies the changing actuality of the world which at clear moments our quickest apprehensions see.” If God was beneath everything, then God could break through in anything. This appealed to Jim, who had always felt God to be present as much in the everyday as in the sanctioned rituals of religion.

He liked Jones’s notion that “a beef-steak is neither more nor less mystical than a diaphanous cloud.” Ordinary things could communicate the divine: a teacup could be “the cup of life, a window the Heavens opened, a boot the fragility of this flesh. If it was light it was the light that shineth in darkness.”

He found the same idea in two Jesuit writers: in Jean Pierre de Caussade’s “sacrament of the present moment”, and in Teilhard de Chardin’s extending of the sacramental principle to all matter in his “Mass on the World”.

This principle became Jim’s guiding vision for Kettle’s Yard. Barrington-Ward saw that the house and Jim’s understanding of the eucharist were inseparable: “The house was meant to offer, to those who were ready and open, a deeper vision of what the whole of life and creation was about.”

For Jim, then, the house as a whole was sacramental: a total artwork to the glory of God. The way in which the light fell around the rooms mattered as much as the contents, because it was unity and resonance of the whole which he pursued. He said of himself that “he never felt it was his creation, he just put things where they seemed to belong.” His aesthetic notions of “rightness” and “balance” were always God-pointing.

In one scrap of text among his papers, he seems to echo the prophet Isaiah: “Have you not seen, have you not noticed, how when everything is in its place, my light envelops things with grace and beauty?” Jim was glad when one critic, Christopher Neve, understood that his famously obsessive curation was devotional: “The precision of placement keys up the senses, making us attentive to the still quiet centre.” The still quiet centre was, of course, God.

Paul AllittThe dining room at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Jim believed that our most fundamental calling as humans was to return praise to the God who made us. The shape of a circle, which is everywhere in Kettle’s Yard, came to be for him a symbol of this calling, representing a single unbroken action of giving and responding around its circumference, always turning back towards itself but never arriving. He loved the ancient maxim that God is a circle “whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere”, and he collected abstracts and engravings of circles from some of his most religious artist friends, Ben Nicholson and Richard Pousette-Dart, who shared this symbolic language.

Like a line turning back towards its source, then, Kettle’s Yard became for Jim the great work of his life: his chance, at last, to respond creatively to his sense that life was a gift — to give back not just to society, but to God.

It was always Jim’s intention to open the house to visitors, and to leave it and all its contents to the University of Cambridge after his death. His wish was that undergraduates would discover something there; that those who were ready would be moved by the poignancy of the arrangements and the light, and, through them, discover the beauty of creation and the Creator.

Contemplation of art and of the divine had always been interwoven for him: in the 1940s, he wrote: “It is through contemplation only that a man can become part of that life which lies within a work of art; and it is only by entering in upon that life that a man will see a work of art; and by seeing come into a state of grace.”

The way of life he proposed at Kettle’s Yard was orientated entirely towards this state of grace. Each day, he rang the Angelus bell, and swept the floor of the tiny, ancient church next door, St Peter’s — not because this was a quaint ritual, but because the way of living which produced the house was genuinely devotional. To him, the church was “far more important to Kettle’s Yard than the Exhibition Gallery and all the telephones”.


MUCH of this is well known to scholars. Elizabeth Fisher’s 2018 Ph.D. thesis on Ede is rich in detail, and has massively informed the story that I have told here (Freeman’s book does not refer to it). Lucy Kent has written outstanding articles on the part played by the spiritual in British modernism generally, and the reluctance of the art world to acknowledge it. A similar story could be told of the sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth, for example, who was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England, came under the influence of Christian Science, but latterly also returned to Anglican practice.

Paul AllittBen Nicholson’s Mugs (1944), William Staite Murray’s The Heron (1928), and Gregorio Vardanega’s suspended Disc at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Does it matter, then, that Christian faith is so neglected in the story of Kettle’s Yard as it tends to be told? In one sense, it seems a dereliction of Jim’s vision to fixate on his choice of tea leaf, but never to mention the God who gave his life meaning. “If it were not for this God business,” he wrote, “I think that our lives would be utterly empty.”

Yet in another, it seems consistent with Jim’s theology that God’s presence at Kettle’s Yard should be subtle and silent. None of the pictures in Kettle’s Yard is labelled; Jim liked his theology, too, to be free of terms and labels, preferring the path of unknowing. To preach his gospel he chose pebbles over proselytising and sunlight over sermons.

Art and beauty mattered to him, because they could reach people at a level that words and arguments could not. Visual experience, like religious experience, is word-shy, and so, somehow, the two speak to each other, below the level of our hearing.

Jim would have been confident that Kettle’s Yard would go on moving people to contemplate God’s beauty, however it was labelled or interpreted, and he wasn’t wrong. So, perhaps the silence is not the problem. What matters more is when the story of Kettle’s Yard is told in fulsome detail, and yet Jim’s faith is still missing, or is reduced to a passing “interest” or episode.

When that happens, we should remember the famous lemon, hovering near the front door: a silent but insistent reminder of the God of beauty and balance who inspired Ede’s creation and gave it meaning.

The house is currently closed for refurbishment, but is expected to reopen soon. See
kettlesyard.cam.ac.uk for details.

The Revd Dr Robert Hawkins is Assistant Curate at St James’s, Cambridge, and a member of the editorial board of Art+Christianity.

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