Kettle's Yard -

Kettle's Yard -

Kettle's Yard, 14 years in the remaking already into its stride

Exciting international artist exhibit continues until January 8th

Andrew Nairne, the new boss of Kettle's Yard, believes in art. Inspired by the Russian artist Naum Gabo, he is convinced it can change the world. His ambition is to make his gallery an international focus for artists worldwide – and to reach out to his local community, particularly the young. His mission opens a new chapter on 10 February when the rebuilt, re-stocked and glamorously welcoming gallery will fling open its doors to the world in a new exciting era for art. Since its opening and a spectacular Anthony Gormley exhibition, the objective has been more than realised.

From a street-view Kettle's Yard hasn’t changed a bit. City Planners and conservationists have been carefully consulted during its 14-year-long makeover, including the intensive construction in the last two years. So even though nearly £12 million pounds has gone into its transformation, with devious skill, Cambridge’s famously hidden gallery looks exactly the same as it did. Even elaborately crafted new chimney pots on the street side of the building, are only there to preserve the exterior as it was: 'So what,' you might reasonably ask, 'have those cranes, workmen and plant machinery been up to for so long?' 

Jamie Fobert Architects began their restoration and renewal scheme funded with some private donation (but mostly massive grants) in 2004. 

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It has been a tough assignment. 

Canadian-born Fobert, veteran of several museum makeovers, was working with a weight of historic significance on his shoulders. Jim Ede, Jimmy, and his wife Helen saved four cottages from the wreckers’ ball in the 1950s, and converted them into a gallery-at-home filled with the work of the modernists of the day they befriended; Ben Nicholson. Joàn Miro, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore all gave them (or sold at knock down prices) some of their finest pieces.

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Their home opened to the public every day. When any visitor pulled the iron bell handle Jimmy greeted them (Helen always fled to the back of the house) and showed them round their stark modernist environment of white sofas loose-covered chairs (sit in them no one minded) --  artful arrangements of natural objects blended with the sculptures around the rooms and paintings on the walls. Jimmy even let students borrow works of art to brighten up their college rooms – former student Stephen Buchanan remembers walking off with one of the Alfred Wallace naïve paintings under his arm, 'It was terrific but you did wonder quite whether you were entitled to it.'

The couple coveted every tiny detail. Artist, Ian Hamilton Findlay described the place as ‘The Louvre of the Pebble'.  It was done on the cheap (the admired white sofas were upturned mattresses) but Kettle's Yard style was copied by thousands of people who wanted to live in a cool modernist way.

They will be happy to learn that it’s all back in place as if it had never been gone. Brightened and polished and often entirely re-wired, Jamie Fobert  (with project architect Oliver Bindloss) emptied the famous house of its priceless collection (the risk of dropping a steel girder on the roof was too great) for a sparkling clean up. The celebrated lunette window with its stark wooden armchair and suspended glass engraved disk now looks like a heavenly version of its former self, glowing in the western sun.

So what is the Big Idea as Leslie Martin, one of the designers of KY’s last expansion always asked of any project?

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He himself had plenty of them – one was the The Royal Festival Hall he designed in the 50s, another was the muted brick- floored extension to Kettle's Yard, cunningly flooded with light which opened up the place from some (still cramped) cottages to a proper gallery. Now with the funding that Jim Ede dreamed of, that gallery has turned to the world. Nice as it was, the old building was confusing. Visitors never knew where they were and that was often the wrong place when they did find out. Like up against a locked door and forced to retrace their steps against the forward flow of newcomers, or much worse, turned away to another entrance. 'They often just gave up and went away,' reports Jamie Fobert. Not now.

The entire façade onto Castle Hill is now full of wide space with bright windows where the world outside can see in. From the top of the Guided Bus there’s a view to tempt anyone in. The education space, wide, well-equipped and just for once, not stuffed into windowless rooms below the important part of the building but in in an airy triple-height area with large windows again on to the street. Relentlessly patient conservation is twinned against the introduction of Jamie Fobert’s signature material, steel so that the new gallery has a 2018 feel and, sadly for some the floors are concrete not wooden or brick. The lifts (yes lifts!) are superb, there are lavatories on the ground floor and the place is disabled-friendly with a tiny but sunny café  just as you come in – with vital access to the equally miniature garden.

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. The image of the world can be different. In a cynical society, how many galleries would have the dynamism and daring to mount such a challenge to Cambridge and the world beyond?

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