Collector in Focus: Harold Stanley Ede
Posted By Tom on April 25, 2012Harold Stanley Ede’s career as a collector was forged in the turbulent wake of World War One, and in the face of institutional conservatism. Despite this he went on to become one of the most influential patrons of his day, creating Cambridge’s renowned Kettle’s Yard gallery. Not the largest or most glamorous collection of its time, the body of work assembled at Kettle’s Yard nevertheless embodies the curatorial virtues of judgement and placement, capturing the spirit of British modernism in a way no other does.
Ede began his career as a painting student at Newlyn Art College in 1912, but with the advent of World War One he was called up for service on the Western Front. On his return from this devastating experience, Ede continued his studies at the Slade, and soon after took up a job as assistant curator at the Tate Gallery. The role allowed him to write on a wide range of artistic topics and saw him form close friendships with the avant-garde artists of his day. Many of these, such as David Jones and Ben Nicolson, were under-appreciated by the art world at the time. They would go on to make up key components in Ede’s collection.
Ede’s acquisitions in the 1920s of works by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska demonstrated his interest in the hard geometric forms of Vorticism, a movement which set itself up as art for the machine age. Gaudier-Brzeska was a protégé of the modernist poet Ezra Pound, and a member of the famous circle that included Wyndham Lewis and Jacob Epstein. His influential work embodied a rigorous, chiselled aesthetic and an interest in non-European art. Ede acquired much of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work following the death of the Frenchman’s lover Sophie in 1925. For Ede, Gaudier-Brzeska’s work would have been a reminder of the horrors of war, since he was killed at the age of 23 in the same conflict Ede had survived.
The idea of the international art collector now conjures notions of glamour and opulence, but Ede’s career was marked by the pursuit of a minimal aesthetic which bordered on the austere. His interest in collecting took him beyond the confines of the Tate to Morocco. He built his own house on the outskirts of Tangiers, which was one of the first contemporary art spaces to adopt the bare whitewashed walls we now take for granted in modern gallery spaces. It was here he began to explore the idea that art should be viewed in an informal context, as part of everyday life.
The notion was one Ede was to pursue on his return to England in 1956, when he bought four rustic cottages in Cambridge, and converted them into what is now Kettle’s Yard. In Ede’s day the gallery was an informal open-house arrangement, with students of the day saying that the collector became something of a “father figure” to those with an interest in his collection, loaning them paintings to hang in their rooms during term time.
Notable to this day is his sensitive placement of artefacts, which are housed in a very particular relation to the furniture of the building, and to the way the light falls through the windows. Ede said “I search always for stillness, which penetrates our fullest activity and even our sleep,” and this principle can be seen in the way every object at Kettle’s Yard is treated as part of an organic whole. Visitors during Ede’s lifetime noticed that this attention to detail was extended even to the “marvellous 18th century tumblers and stemmed glasses” from which a fine burgundy would be sipped.
The collection may not be one of the most extensive of its time, but its unusual location and sensitive curatorship make it one of the most influential. The work embodies the oppositional tensions generated by the abrasive, angular forms we associate with movements such as Futurism and Minimalism, as set against the organic presences which were a continuation of British folk and landscape traditions. Present in the collection is the work of Christopher Wood, whose folk-inspired scenes developed the sensitive handling of line learnt from Jean Cocteau, as well as that of Cornish folk artist Alfred Wallis and household names such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben and Winifred Nicholson, which latter group was central to the synthesis of continental influences with British experience.
The value of investing in innovative art while it is still contemporary is clearly demonstrated by Ede’s collection. Able to compliment his interpretations of the work with personal anecdotes about the artists he had known, Ede was a curator whose judicious sensitivity allowed an understated but exquisite collection to take on a pivotal position in the history of British modernism.
Written by Dr. Thomas Slingsby