Places to visit: Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

3rd August 2001 at 01:00

Saturday afternoon in Castle Street, Cambridge. Stray tourists are pressing their noses against the windows of Kettle's Yard art gallery. Inside, an American family, some Japanese art students, a mum, her son, and a grinning dad with his daughter are molesting giant lumps of oil-clay.

They thump, prod and claw, pinching out noses, gouging out eye sockets and twisting antennae. The show holds its spectators for a good five minutes before they move on.

The exhibition they almost visited is Britain's first showing of the work of Mono-ha, a radical art movement that emerged from Tokyo's 1968 student protests. But like many others who come to Cambridge for a day of dreaming spires, punts and honey for tea, the tourists reject displays of modern art and so also miss one of the best experiences in the world of domestic interiors.

The yard's location, a 10-minute walk from the tourist magnets of Cambridge's city centre, adds to the feeling that this is a place apart. It's the wrong side of the Magdalene Bridge, outside the charmed inner circle of the university city. The sort of place you make a pilgrimage to or stumble upon during your search for a less-crowded pub.

But the art gallery, a typical 1970s, Arts Council-funded space, is just one of several faces of Kettle's Yard. And for all its challenging exhibitions and far-reaching educational activities, it is not what we're here for. The hidden treasure is the house behind the gallery, where the yard's founder, Jim Ede, and his wife, Helen, lived between 1956 and 73.

Ede was partly establishment, partly an outsider waging war on the philistinism of England's ruling classes. As a curator at the Tate Gallery in London through the 1920s and early 1930s, he befriended leading artists.

He quit the Tate in 1935 to build the first version of his art house in Tangiers. He landed back in Britain in the mid-Fifties, with the bold notion of persuading Cambridge University to clasp modern art to its bosom.

You have to ring the bell and wait to be invited in. The first impression is of entering a rather cramped country cottage owned by a genteel professor. The furniture is simple and elegant. Art is everywhere - even in the bathroom and toilet.

And the art is always balanced by natural objects. Perfectly spherical stones laid in spirals; seashells, crystals and plants, all arranged with devastating aesthetic precision. The Edes were experts at making relationship between objects in space, decades before anyone in the West had heard of feng shui.

You leave Kettle's Yard feeling you've glimpsed a slice of a more civilised world.nbsp;It tells you a lot about Ede that no sooner was his project complete than he handed it over to the university and left Cambridge to spend the final 20 years of his life in Edinburgh, looking after his ailing wife.

House opening times: 1.30pm-4.30pm (summer); 2pm-4pm (winter), closed Mondays. Gallery: 11.30am-5pm. Admission free. Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ. Tel: 01223 352124. E-mail: mail@kettlesyard.cam.ac.uk; website: www.kettlesyard.co.uk

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