Saturday, June 30, 2012

Kettle's Yard: corners, spaces and objects.

It was like suddenly, unexpectedly entering my ideal home...everything seems casually placed and yet perfectly placed ... I used to spend hours there on winter weekends, thinking how on earth can I replicate this?

that was how my old friend Glenn, who showed up in the comments here on the first Kettle's Yard post, described the impression the place made on him as a very young man living in Cambridge.  It does have this effect on people. The 'how on earth can I...?' when someone like Glenn asks it is probably in a spirit of positive and constructive aspiration which would then be worked on for years, with the ideal held and cherished in one's heart until something close it is achieved. For someone like myself, it tends to lead to despondency and a sense of failure, the kind of feeling evoked by interiors magazines, books and programmes, only worse in a way, because I know to mistrust those as consumerist and meretricious, whereas Kettle's Yard is the real thing, the life work of people of real integrity and sense of beauty in every aspect of their lives.

Then good old Zephyr made me laugh with something of a sense of relief though, when she commented:

The first thought i had: Oh! i must artfully arrange some of my pebble collection!
The second thought which rushed in so quickly it nearly cut of the first thought: Jim and Helen clearly did not live with cats.

Cats, agents of chaos and misrule.  Some people, I know, my sister being one, Glenn  and Zephyr quite possibly others, do manage to live lives of order, beauty and harmony which include cats, but even they have to stop short of perfectly arranged spirals of rollably round pebbles just in front of a window at perfect cat-jump height. Cats, knocking things over, leaving fluff, chasing around, rejecting the warm and agreeable convenient spaces we set aside for them and finding their own less convenient ones, regardless of what else has to be displaced or slept on (our old Ginger we had as kids was once found sleeping on a newly baked sponge cake set on a rack in the kitchen to cool), represent that which can't be controlled and set at nought our hopes for a perfectly arranged life.  But they bring their own beauty, and we love them.

In fact if Kettle's Yard really does represent what it looked like when it was inhabited, there are a number of inconvenient and untidy elements of ordinary life, even that of the period - 1958 to 1973 - when it was lived in which seem to be absent.  Though there was a bit of visible plumbing work, I don't even remember seeing a kitchen, I suppose there must have been one somewhere.  And there just wasn't any clutter. And everything went with everything else, however different in style and period they are.  And who dusts all those pebbles?

I love my home; we have built it largely from scratch over a long time, but Kettle's Yard it ain't, or anything like it. Looking around, there are piles of magazines and papers not dealt with, half-done mending jobs and half-finished drawings, a couple of old plastic fly-swats we can't not have to hand (I cleaned the windows the other day so there's not too much evidence of fly-swatting on them just now but sometimes there is).  Near the door  there is a laundry basket for the washing out on the line  - plastic, though I do have some more tasteful wicker ones - with a broken corner which I don't like to throw out because it's still usable and I hate the thought of all the waste plastic in the world washing up onto beaches in the Indian Ocean or breaking into tiny pieces and killing the turtles.  There are mishmashes of half-full (note, not the inverse, so I'm clearly not entirely despondent in every regard...) bottles on the shelf, and of workboots, wellies and sabots on the mat by the French doors. There are boxes of tissues and matches and fire-lighters, a pair of ear-rings that need new wires, a map of the area from Rennes to Granville, on sundry surfaces. We have no cat but we have a dog who, along with the above footwear of ours, walks dirt, dust and vegetation indoors from out, drops large amounts of black fluff and who claims and acquires as many corners and surfaces as she likes, which then require cleaning and/or protection from black doggy grubbiness, bless her.

Then there are the trappings of the age: mobile phones on charge, remote controls for TV, DVD, Digibox; a spaghetti of leads and cables and adaptors.  There is an awful lot of plastic.

I try to think of myself as an aesthetically aware person, though I know I fall very far short of many people I know; I try not to acquire ugly and mismatched things, but sometimes it just seems to be necessary to get the available thing for the job in hand, which are tolerable to both of our tastes at a price we can afford.  Compromises and clashes happen.

We try to keep on top of keeping things clean and tidy, but it seems to me that, despite how effortless it appears, simply maintaining a even a smaller place in the state of pristine beauty of Kettle's Yard would take so much time and energy and be so unremitting that one would never have time to sit down and read the fascinating collection of books or listen to the records, and would only be able to give the pictures and pebbles a cursory glance while running the feather duster over them.

The other thing a number of people have said of Kettle's Yard is that as soon as they walked in it felt like home.  As I keep saying, many people have better ordered, more aesthetically accomplished homes than I do, but I can't imagine too many of them quite match up to this most harmonious and authentic, yet warm-blooded and inviting of house museums.  We don't live in museums. But I must learn to love not resent the people and places who offer a pattern, an ideal in this way, and even if replicating it, to use Glenn's term, is impossible, I can find small ways of emulating it, even if only in isolated objects and spaces.

So, with that, a final slew of Kettle's Yard images of corners, spaces and objects.


vicki said...

it's my turn to laugh! i absolutely love the visual i have of your Ginger sleeping on a nice warm sponge!!

And (!!) me? living a life of harmony and order?? In my dreams i live in a place like Kettle's, by the sea--with a friendly flock of fairies who clean up after me and the fur folk, nightly.

i've decided to call my home a "haven of comfy clutter". Even though i am often envious of other's lovely homes, i can always find very good excuses for putting off "cleaning house". Although i do try to vacuum frequently, since the one boy seems to shed his body weight daily!

On more than one occasion, i've been astonished by visitors who comment on how good it feels to be in our home--because all the while they are here, i'm preoccupied with the ever-present dust bunnies and fur, and the fact that i cannot possibly live long enough to see this 200+ year old house receive all the face-lifts it deserves. while showing them the garden, all i can see is how much weeding i haven't done. while they are here, i keep thinking, "Now they know what a lousy housekeeper and gardener i am."

And yet, people who stay with us do not seem to pick up on my anxieties--or look around, juding me/us. Almost always, people comment on how "good it feels in this home". i suppose it's because--even with all of our frustrations for all that we always have on our "to-do" list--my sister and i love our home and the creatures who share it with us. Does that account for harmony--even though i continue to wish i had loads of money to spend on fixing things and a flock of friendly housekeeping fairies?

Plutarch said...

Of all those charming images my favourite is the fox. Do you know its provenance?

zephyr said...

you know that comment was from me, right? Good ol' Google...(mutter, mutter)

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

Fly-splatted windows. Proof that intellectualism, chez Kempton, is of the muscular sort. Less agile and more prone to excessive irritation, the da Pontes have opted for the ultimate deterrent, seeking to cut life off at the source. The can of Raid lurks.

Lucy said...

Thanks three.

Vicki/Zephyr (course I knew it was you). I'm sure your home is artistic and beautiful. 200+ must be very old for an American house. That story about Ginger and the cake has done some miles I can tell you!

Plutarch - sorry, just now I can't tell you much about the fox; as I say, I didn't do much enquiring about the pieces, none of which are labelled, and had no catalogue, and Googling isn't much help. If I go another time I'll try to find out! One of the interesting things about the place is having to put aside to some extent one's need to know the names and histories attached to things, and simply to look at them and absorb them as part of the scene, but now it's a little frustrating looking back at the photos because I want to know more about certain things.

Lorenzo - oh, I'm not above chemical intervention, but I really don't like the smell of fly spray and don't like it near food areas. The business of clearing the decks, putting all food and food related items away, sealing and vacating the premises, coming back and cleaning and airing (and thereby letting a load more flies in)the place, is more than I can usually be doing with. We do however, as well as various barrier methods, have a blue light zapper thing, which seems mostly to reduce the build up of small flying insects overnight. The big buzzy buggers seem to avoid it though, and I can't hear one of those things without stopping what I'm doing going on a hunt, not resting until I have splatted it. Occasionally if I corner it in some place where I can open a window and witness its exit I show mercy, but more to save myself time than out of compassion. My brother had a brilliant battery powered swat shaped like a small tennis racquet which electrocuted them in mid-air, which was a far more aesthetically satisfying way of doing things, but utterly compelling, and I fear I would get little else done. For a squeamish person who is by and large very anti-bloodsports, I have a singularly bloodthirsty streak in this area. Spiders I generally try to co-exist with.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

Is one allowed to come back on an entirely different subject?

"I try not to acquire ugly and mismatched things, but sometimes it just seems to be necessary to get the available thing for the job in hand."

Also "aesthetically aware".

A victim of form follows function, I see. I wonder if you'd agree that the concept of aesthetics can be stretched in other directions. Is a pretty thing which is intended to do a job, but doesn't, aesthetically displeasing? Is the visual pleasure eroded?

As you know I am drawn to hand-guns because they are (to my mind) the ultimate expression of form following function. I respond this way even though I have no interest in discharging guns. There is an elegant disquisition on this in a thriller called Venus With Pistol, written by Gavin Lyall, late husband of Katherine Whitehorn. A couple of centuries ago it seemed as if gun development had come to a full stop and this led manufacturers to start decorating the wooden parts with filigree work and carvings. The central character - alas, a trained assassin; some clichés never change - argues that this is a retrograde step given the hand-gun's raison d'etre.

Imagine then a perfectly balanced, pleasingly plain non-stick frying. Then imagine another version of the pan with intelligently designed swirls and curlicues round the outer edges and let into the frying surface. Which would you chose?

Lucy said...

Lorenzo - of course you are allowed.

Form follows function, though I suppose in extremis an austere doctrine, still allows for plenty of variation and leeway, and anything you like on the surface. Colour is an element usually independent of form and function, you can have your Le Creuset pan in trad orange, trendy aubergine or aqua-turquoise enamel, or in, plain burnished cast iron without, I suppose, violating the FFF rule, unless a particular finish is superior in performance.

Truth to materials is the dictum that perhaps worries me more and in modern, oil-based times is quite difficult to hold to. Again, in extremis, reductio ad absurdum, (sorry seem to be speaking Latin all of a sudden...) it would allow for no decoration, colour or concealing finish at all. Our plastic/plasma telly is honest to itself, not trying to look like anything else, but what about the laminate flooring, what about the wall paper which is also basically a plastic finish? Solid wood floors would have been lovely, but were neither workable nor affordable; ceramic tiles, which we do have in some areas, (though I suspect them of impersonating stone...) might be more genuine but are cold and hostile to have throughout, as many French homes testify.

Real wood veneer, which we have in some items of furniture, might have seemed to have more integrity but does it? Strictly, if we were TTM purists, we should just have the honest chipboard sans veneer, even without a colouring stain or varnish, since those are also plastic pretending to be something else.

The walls should really be plaster and paint, not drywall and wallpaper, but that option was beyond us in a number of ways, and with modern resins and polymers, aren't these just another layer of plastic anyway? And the wallpaper really is quite nice...

Yes, I think I must be a victim.

I do rather like the sound of that frying pan, provided the decoration was let into the surface as you describe, and didn't in any way weaken the vessel, and not in the form of excrescences which would trap the grease and catch on things. I did once buy a saucepan with a design of strawberries on the outside, but it was a fairly crappy cheap one and both internal non-stick and external decoration have largely worn off - I keep it and use it because it's a handy size and not heavy.

I sometimes think I'd quite like a bit more gratuitous decoration around and indeed on my person but lack the confidence and consistency of style somehow, and tend to go for the simple plain version of things.

Pretty things which don't do what they're supposed to are annoying, so I suppose they are aesthetically displeasing, but a pretty thing can just be there because it's pretty, considered to be beautiful rather than known to be useful. Many of the best things are both though.

Enough already, hope this answers...

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

I enjoyed enormously what turned out to be twin parallel tours of Chez Kempton: the what-it-is vs. what-it-could be. Or the actual vs. the dreamed virtual.

And realised that my imagined sensitivities fell far short of yours. We too considered an expensively tiled floor for the kitchen but were mercifully dissuaded not only by those who greatly regretted their decision in this area but also by the floor installer who would have stood to gain from this. The disadvantages are not only practical (anything frangible dropped on such a floor franges) but aesthetic (certain types of tile wear down and therefore lose their pattern). The alternative which we took up cost a fortune, is in fact plastic but is pleasing and virtually random to look at and was guaranteed for ten years.

Houses (more often their interiors) are the ultimate battleground for this pragmatic vs. romantic struggle. With age (long may this be delayed in your case) we have tended to see the house as a machine for living. It must, first and foremost, be comfortable. But all is not lost. With this realisation came an increasing desire to enhance things with original art. And lo... the best compromise.

Many thanks for indulging me.

Anne said...

I had dinner last night at the house of a friend whose house bears some likeness to Kettle's. Every object is tasteful, carefully placed. Every piece of furniture carefully chosen. Of course, it is lived in, so not quite as perfectly arranged as Kettle's. I had seen your posts before I went there to dinner, and was thinking about this sort of order and perfection. After dinner I noticed that the dishes we had eaten our dinner on were not washed, but somehow, by stealth, aesthetically stacked by the tidy sink.

Well, I thought, there's some inner ability that I totally lack, to instinctively, automatically, keep things nicely arranged. After I give a dinner party the kitchen looks (as an elderly relative of mine used to say) "like the devil had a fit in it."

The other problem that I have with unblemished good taste is that most of my things were acquired by inheritance or given to me by people I love, and they might not be things I would have specially chosen myself.

The photos you have given us are a beautiful inspiration to keep on trying.

Did you take a picture of the cat sleeping on the cake?

Lucy said...

LdP - it's a pleasure (to indulge you). Yes, I look at certain good things we have, which often involved finding a bit of money and a sense of celebration - art, yes, most notably our alabaster swan for Tom's last big birthday, some rather special original pieces of ceramic and mosaic, not many picturess except those done by ourselves and friends - also a lush pure wool rug in deep red which covers quite a bit of the laminate floor and which holds up better to black spaniel depredations than anything synthetic, a beechwood table, Ikea it's true, but solid and simple, but also found objects, gifts, even particularly beautiful cards (including one from Zephyr!) which have been kept and displayed beyond the event which occasioned them. It's a mishmash but it's home.

Anne - yes, there do seem to be people like that. I guess it's a choice between despair and emulation; sometimes I go one way, sometimes the other. I absolutely love 'like the devil had a fit in it'. I agree, ordinary acquisition of things sometimes precludes perfect taste. What may be said of Kettle's Yard is that it shows that consistency of style and period isn't necessary for harmony; there are all kinds of things side by side and it still all works.

The cat on the cake was a very long time ago, I don't think I even witnessed it, just heard my mum's account of it, so sadly no photos!