The Atomic Yard

Reflections on childhood, culture and Kettle's Yard c.1957

‘The Atomic Yard’ series was made whilst John Goto was Artist-in-Residence at Kettle's Yard and Girton College, University of Cambridge, 1988-9. Below is a conversation Goto recorded with Kettle’s Yard’s founder, Jim Ede, in Edinburgh at the beginning of the residence. It was to be the last interview Mr. Ede gave before his death on 15 March 1990.

JG. I've come to view Kettle's Yard as a single artwork, a montage made from paintings, furnishings and objects.

JE. This fits in a little with what I'd thought. Whenever I've heard the word collection, I've said to myself, well this isn't a collection, it's a number of things perhaps. If you don't love the things you are going to present with an enormously human love, then what's the good? I find that I'm very occupied with light and shadows. I had a group of pebbles arranged in a tray from the lightest towards the darkest and a woman came in with her granddaughter who picked them up and they went whoosh all over the room. Well, that's what happens, even with grown ups.

JG. In my first few weeks at Kettle's Yard I saw it more as a succession of still lives.

JE. I never thought of it in that way but curiously enough the other day someone said they were thinking about all those still lives at Kettle's Yard. You see I believe in stillness if only I could achieve it, which I don't think I can. Harmony is another word for it. Stillness is really a very strange word; to be still meaning to be attentive, to take in, to search and indeed to be at that place where you don't take in anything at all, to just know.

JG. As with the child knocking over the pebbles, is there sometimes a contradiction between family life and this quest for stillness?

JE. Yes there is. I have been very fortunate in building my own city almost, the moment the door was open there was harmony. Five or six people would sometimes come to Kettle's Yard and that would seem like an enormous crowd. Then twelve would come and then fourteen and I had to scatter them to different places until finally I could absorb say thirty coming to that tiny little house and they didn't look as if they were there at all.

JG. When did you begin working with interiors?

JE. When I was a small schoolboy I had a friend who took me to their home in Plymouth. The first thing I did on that afternoon as we were alone in the house was to shift their drawing room into something quite different. I don't know how I did it, we shifted the piano into a different place and changed all those cosy nooks they had in corners until the room had a good sense of light. The lady of the house when she came back was pretty shocked, but she took to it and didn't destroy it. So it started young.

JG. You were born in 1895?

JE. Yes, I'll soon be 94, but what that means I don't know; it's an illness in itself to be 94.

JG. Were there certain artists that you felt an affinity with in your work?

JE. Yes, Venice... a path beside the canal... the fourteenth century... a room with everything beautifully placed... a shelf with a bottle on it... Carpaccio. Kettle's Yard is an achieved placing of peculiarly different objects so that they come together to make a new whole.

I am told your father died recently. Was he ill for any length of time?

JG. Yes, he had fibrosis and it was diagnosed three and a half years ago but he only became bedridden during the last three months. He died last week.

JE. I wish we could take this final thing in the gay fashion that I take these still lives because it is all part of the same process. People keep asking me how old I am. They say marvellous, I oughtn't to be getting around at my time of life. A woman I spoke to in hospital said something about dying, I said that I think it's all so tremendously coherent.

JG. You feel that death is part of a natural process, even part of an aesthetic process?

JE. Yes, take for example those twigs... Death, I have thought about it quite often and it's come to me to think about it as if in a dream. I have the feeling quite strongly that if it's anything it's coherence and balance. There's no need for people to be chattering to each other or be troubled by one thing or another, there is no trouble any more. It's all straightforward and clear. We've been having outside this window some kind of a man who does all sorts of things with big yellow lights... they keep on blazing away down there... he even sends people up lamp posts into the sky... I've been meaning to track him down and see what it's all about. Death is not a thing to be afraid of in any way, it's a cohesion of natural intensities. Sometimes when I look into these great lights and there is a flutter of wind and leaves, it's as if a whole village is coming towards this garden. A lot of people together like in a French picture perhaps.

JG. Do they represent spirits?

JE. Yes, I think that what we call the spirit is the essence. I mean what is it that makes whisky? Whisky would be nothing without this something which settles inside you and you are no longer estranged at all.

JG. I spent a lot of time in hospital with my father recently and it occurred to me then that there is a connection between your work at Kettle's Yard and the visits you now make to the sick and dying.

JE. I have known in my life a great many people who have died who were my dear friends, and who are my dear friends, and whose outlooks are coherent with death. I had one sad case of a man who was in the Antarctic and for ten years he has been considered mad. I can't see anything mad about him. He has a tremendous memory and he thinks and talks quite rightly about things. I visit about eight hospitals and I think it works now and again because it can check the patient's absorption in dying.

JG. You feel that when close to death people become absorbed in the process to the exclusion of the outside world?

JE. Yes, almost.

JG. Do you remember in 'War and Peace', Tolstoy describes the Count’s death where he retreats into himself, away from those loved ones around for whom this is very painful, he withdraws and dies. How do you attempt to help another in their death when they come from very different histories and preoccupations?

JE. Oh well, I don't think of any of those things, they all disappear. It's "and how are you today" and "yes, it's a lovely hospital", things like that. I remember feeling quite satisfied when I was walking down through the ward and I heard someone say "there goes that chap who comes every week, it must be Tuesday".

JG. You clearly don't see death as nothingness?

JE. No. If anything death must be an illumination. I suggest that we become part of the texture of the world which in your book (Terezin) about that nazi camp... millions of people... it does matter because it should not be like that.Death seems to me to be a very remarkable process which nobody knows anything about... and to think we go through an intelligent life aiming at death and feeling confused by death, it's a remarkable fear. I think that when Jesus sees Lazarus, and all the people are terribly unhappy because Lazarus has died, He
knows the secret, He knows what is to come but it isn't for us to be bothered with the next life...

Did your father say anything before he died?

JG. In the end he was on oxygen and he said,"Take this away, I'm ready to go, I'm not afraid", and so we took it away. He died quietly and with great dignity, the way he lived his life. He made that decision and there was a completeness to the way he died because it was the way he had lived.

JE. I'm glad you have all that to think about. It's enough really. Where was I when my father died? I didn't see either of my parents die.

I knew about death as a child because on one occasion I was told to run up and find Grandpa, we were waiting for him to come down and say a prayer. I went up and there he was lying on the bed with his mouth open and his eyes, and he didn't say a word. So I, knowing full well that he had died, came running down stairs saying "Grandpa is on his bed and won't say a word". Everyone rushed up and I was told to go back. When I was finally allowed to see him he had a sheet over his head. They lost a wonderful opportunity of introducing me to this
thing, they were frightened and he was the only sensible, quite person.

JG. Can I ask you how you feel about the encroachment of time and change on Kettle's Yard? It is a problem that all artists face as pigments discolour and images fade. How do you see the future of the house in say three hundred years time, do you see it as being as you left it?

JE. No. We already have reached a stage where we can't take more than a certain number of people, nor can we keep up the fabric, the rugs and things. I bought some of the rugs from the Fitzwilliam, they were put away as dangerous, whereas when we lived at Kettle's Yard we could turn them around and any way there were fewer people.

JG. Would you like to think then that for the foreseeable future Kettle's Yard can be kept pretty much as it is, allowing for the replacement of things that wear down?

JE. Yes, but it has gone into the world. I think that it can last a hundred years but if we have a nuclear war, there'd be nothing left, finished.

JG. Could we look at the international aspect of the house? It seems to me that at present there is again an attempt being made in Britain to construct a purely nationalist view of art whereas Kettle's Yard embraces a European heritage.

JE. Yes, but I think we have been stymied from the very beginning by huge prices, now a million pounds has become the level of payment for some works.

JG. With more resources you would have bought more European work?

JE. Yes, every year, and built a great gallery.

JG. You came to Cambridge in 1957, can you tell me a little about why you went there and what it was like at that time?

JE. The reason for going to Cambridge was very simple, Helen Ede didn't like towns preferring the country, and the country was sufficiently diagnosed by having a market in Cambridge. We decided that it would be Oxford or Cambridge because it was only there that a large enough public would want what I had to offer. Once they got to know it was there, they would have it.

JG. You would show people around the house and this you saw as part of the work?

JE. Yes, I found that very good, it gave them a different start. For about the first four or five years no senior academic visited. One day I met a man of the cloth and I said "I really do think you should come and check out this house into which so many of your students disappear!" I felt that Cambridge was a bit of a gossip shop and I had to be a little careful about my speech and not say anything irregular.

JG. Am I right in thinking that by the 1950's you had already acquired most of the work and contemporary groups like the School of London didn't interest you very much?

JE. No, I had my own things and they were almost enough.

JG. How does the way of life that Kettle's Yard describes relate to contemporary politics? For example, the Suez crisis happened just the year before you began Kettle's Yard.

JE. I don't think I took any notice of these outside things.

JG. And so the aim was to build something hermetic, self contained?

JE. Yes, for a few people. There were not that many interested.


< To Exhibition

< Interview with John Goto about Kettle's Yard in retrospect, 2009

Close Conversation