Last week’s blog charted my day trip out to take look round Oxford and so, by a rather pleasing piece of not entirely serendipitous symmetry, today I find myself heading out to that other twin peak of pedagogic promulgation – Cambridge. I’ve been meaning to come here for a while to check out the recent renovations to Kettle’s Yard and have finally been prompted into action following a very quick google glance that suggests the inaugural exhibition is shortly to close. And while the title of the show, Actions. The image of the world can be different, sounds a bit portentous, and the accompanying blurb about, ‘the potential of art to act as a poetic, social and political force’, somewhat vague and platitudinous, I decide to ignore the queasy feeling of disquiet and foreboding that rumbles round my inner gastric plumbing and determine to pay the place a visit anyway. After all, there are enough artists that I respect – including Beuys, Gabo, Hepworth, Richard Long, Cornelia Parker – listed amongst the forty of so other unfamiliar names taking part in the show that I figure there should be enough of interest to make the journey worthwhile.
And, of course, there are other things to be seen in Cambridge, notably the Fitzwilliam Museum which is, I suppose, the light blue equivalent to the dark blue Ashmolean. Whereas the latter is sited very much in the middle of the town’s cramped urban configuration of pavements, that have grown too narrow for the number of passing pedestrians, and streets, that have evolved into a confusing spaghettified mess of crowded conflicting congestion, the former is less centrally located and consequently enjoys an altogether more expansive, less pinched, situation. While usefully en route from the station to the town centre, it’s still slightly on the outskirts of the main shopping arena and far enough away from the colleges, that I assume to be the main attraction for most of the touristic sightseers, that it seems to attract far fewer visitors than the palace of Ashmole. And though this crude footfall comparator will, doubtless, be a concern to the relevant trustees, curators and other back-office administrators, as far as I’m concerned it’s a very definite plus point. Frankly, as far as I’m selfishly concerned, the fewer the number of old, gray-haired plodders; middle-aged, middle-England day-trippers; and young, fresh-faced autodidacts filling the place, slowing my path and blocking my view, the better.
Having previously had a bit of a moan about the unhappy new entrance to the Ashmolean, I’m pleased to be able to record that, once ascended through the side run of steps between an impressive pair of sculpted lions (whose haughty expression of condescension brings to mind the distorted physiognomy of the late Kennneth Williams), ingression into the Fitzwilliam is a decidedly more comfortable and pleasantly traditional experience. There’s a proper foyer and, sat behind a proper information desk, are a pair of properly bored-looking invigilators who, when awakened from their reveries, are only too keen to exchange pleasantries and hand out the small gallery guide. Furthermore, behind them is a grand marble staircase leading to an upper floor which is topped with a wonderfully imposing pair of caryatids heralding the doorway into the opening trio of galleries which, according to the guide, are set to reveal the exemplary cultural delights illustrative of the semi-millennial marvels of British art created within the period from 1501 to 2000. Alas, a small sign explains that these first three rooms are, in fact, currently closed for roof repair and refurbishment, resulting in a sad postponement of the hoped for celebratory confirmations of centuries of chauvinistic cultural triumphs.
It’s a disappointment unalleviated by the surprisingly thin display of modern French art in Room 4 which includes some particularly weak Renoirs and Matisses, a very unfinished Seurat and the most oddly, atypical boring Van Gogh I’ve ever seen. The delights in this section are few and far between: a Monet run of poplars; a tiny Fantin Latour cup and saucer; and an equally small scale Cezanne sill life study of apples are all pretty in their own distinctive ways but there’s not much else to detain the disillusioned viewer. Lack of time prevents a proper look at the potentially much more interesting run of early Italian religious works but otherwise, whizzing along through the pre-Modern rooms, there seems very little cause to pause. Although a shameful prurient curiosity does tempt me to rubberneck the Titian car crash that shows a poor pudgy Lucretia about to be ravished by a desperate knife-wielding Tarquin and confirms, to me at least, that some of the master’s late work is decidedly dodgy when it comes to matter of anatomical rectitude.
Finally, there’s a temporary show here, Things of Beauty Growing, which is a sort of thematic survey overview of what is described as British studio pottery. It’s a term used to refer to the kind of arty ceramics made for display rather than any utilitarian usage and a situation that allows for potters to showcase their technical virtuosity in throwing clay around and which is perhaps most frequently expressed by satisfying the urge to indulge in a kind of exhibitionist giganticism. Consequently, there are quite a number of impracticably large pots and amphorae and super-sized crockery (that reminds me of the special customised plate Alan Partridge used to advantageous effect when visiting an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet). I have to confess that ceramics as an art form is not one that really interests me very much but even my untrained eye is impressed by the obvious displays of technical craft skills and I quite like some of the smaller, more subtle designs. Apparently the bulk of the display has been assembled and loaned from the American Yale Centre, in which case special congratulations must also go to the team who took care of the wrapping, packing and transportation.
And so, exiting the show, careful not to accidently bump into any of the exhibits and set off a chain reaction that could destroy the entire exhibition, I head off on the longish walk into town and then out via Magdalen Bridge and up the hill to the Kettle’s Yard complex. Having stopped off slightly longer than planned for a pleasant lunch at Cote, I arrive a bit later than planned and only just in time to get a timed ticket for entrance to the House. For the uninitiated, this beautiful, very spacious, multi-roomed building was the former home of one-time Tate curator Jim Ede, a man of exquisitely refined good taste who used his talents to ornament his living spaces in such a charmingly decorous and subtle manner that they seem to embody the very essence of a rare sophisticated stylistic elegance. And then, so pleased was he with the results of his life time’s collecting and sensitive interior decorating skills that, on his demise, he metamorphosed into a charitable institution and arranged to have the entire contents of his home cryogenically frozen into a state of suspended animation. Or something like that. Suffice to say that the space has been left exactly as it was when Ede and his wife departed in the early 1970s and is now open to members of the public to wander around and admire not just the assorted paintings, prints and sculptures that adorn the walls but also the furniture, chattles, knick-knacks and do-dads that ornament the interstitial spaces and so combine to form one great complementary ensemble.
I suppose the overall style might be labelled something like Comfy Intellectual Modernism with the moderate, subtle tones of the Ben Nicholson abstract prints balanced against the delicate shades of the Winifred Nicholson flower paintings, and the more robust shapes of the Gaudier-Brzeska bronzes off-set by the spirals of specially selected sea shore pebbles, and with everything coming together to create a setting that reeks of the deserved privilege of the upper middle class post-war intelligentsia. It’s certainly easier to imagine the Ede’s of an evening reclining in their armchairs, sipping a glass of claret and maybe completing that day’s Times crossword puzzle, reciting a bit of Eliot or listening to Critic’s Forum on the Third Programme, rather than sprawling on the sofa, cracking open a couple of cans of lager and watching I’m a Celebrity on their widescreen TV while they await the pizza delivery man. Oh well, it’s easy enough to mock the earnestly smug self-satisfied ambience and tweeness of the décor and lifestyle but, I suppose, if forced to choose between exile with Jim and Helen Ede or Wayne and Waynetta Slob, I’d pick the former.
It’s been a while since I last visited Kettle’s Yard but this House bit definitely seems quite a bit larger than I remember it being while the Gallery, which I enter next, seems to be somewhat smaller. As mentioned earlier, I was aware that the Kettle’s Yard bicameral complex had undergone renovation work but, naturally, assumed that the House would remain untouched while the Gallery would be expanded. Ok, the Gallery has had its shop enlarged, had an educational wing added on and has now got a café, but the actual display space – what we boring traditionalists would consider the actual raison d’etre for having a gallery in the first place – feels to me to be more like Kettle’s Two Foot Ten Inches than the full Yard or the Yard and a Half that I was naively anticipating.
It also turns out that the inaugural exhibition is in two parts and part one (with the forty or so interesting artists) has given way to a show featuring nice but unexceptional paintings by Caroline Walker and an ok-ish video by John Akomfra that I think I’ve already seen at the Lisson Gallery a couple of years ago. As I walk back down the hill I can see just how large is the educational area that’s been added on and can’t help thinking how odd are the perversities of lottery funding, in general, and this £11m building project, in particular, that has managed to shrink an already fairly small exhibition space while installing more cafes and shops and education facilities – as if Cambridge doesn’t already have enough of all of these already. Aaaarghhh!