Laura Freeman

Can we know an artist by their house?

When I started writing a life of Jim Ede, I thought: serene interiors, serene soul. Not a bit of it

Alexandre Dumas’s writing studio, Chateau D’If, the prettiest gingerbread garden office you ever saw. Credit: Alan Br. Pro / Alamy Stock Photo

Show me your downstairs loo and I will tell you who you are. Better yet, show me your kitchen, bedroom, billiard room and man cave. Can we know a man – or woman – by their house? The ‘footsteps’ approach to biography argues that to really understand a subject, a biographer must visit his childhood home, his prep-school boarding house, his student digs, his down-and-out bedsit and so on through barracks, shacks, flats, garrets, terraces, townhouses and final Georgian-rectory resting-place. Walk a mile in their shoes – then put on their carpet slippers.

So, to know Horace Walpole, we board the 33 bus to Strawberry Hill. For Henry Moore, it’s Hoglands and its cactus house. For Barbara Hepworth, St Ives and sculptor’s dust. For Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the Sussex Bloomsbury bunch, it’s a train and a pub lunch in Lewes, then on to Charleston to coo over curtains and cushions. Make a weekend of it. Start at Charleston, then on to Monk’s House where Virginia Woolf played boules and wrote her books, then to Farleys where the photographer Lee Miller and the painter Roland Penrose played host to the surrealists. Don’t miss the Picasso tile above the Aga. (I want one!)

For Henry Moore, it’s Hoglands and its cactus house. For Barbara Hepworth, St Ives and sculptor’s dust

In ‘Great Men’s Houses’, an essay for Good Housekeeping, Virginia Woolf describes a visit to the Chelsea house of Thomas and Jane Carlyle. ‘One hour spent in 5 Cheyne Row,’ she writes, ‘will tell us more about them and their lives than we can learn from all the biographies.’ Yes, no, maybe so.

Take Kettle’s Yard. When I started writing a life of Jim Ede, collector, curator and self-declared ‘friend to artists’, who filled his home in Cambridge with pictures, sculptures, stones, shells, seedheads, feathers, flints, Delft tiles, Tibetan yak bells, Javanese puppets, and, famously, pebbles, I thought: serene interiors, serene soul. Not a bit of it. I found a man who kicked against authority, defied the ‘high-ups’ in every institution he encountered; a man generous to a fault, covetous to the point of sin; stingy and spendthrift; austere and extravagant; particular and cavalier. Kettle’s Yard, with its orderly rooms and perfect placement, has been a sanctuary to generations of visitors. But Jim was no hermit. He was a dandy, a gadfly, a chap about town. His life story is there in the art and objects he collected, but it’s a more scattered, uncertain story than his immaculate taste suggests.

What comes first – the story or the study? When I visited Alexandre Dumas’s chateau near Saint-Germain-en-Laye and climbed the slope through the woods to his petit-chateau, the prettiest gingerbread garden office you ever saw, I thought: ‘Here is a place for an ambush. Here d’Artagnan might have dropped from the trees. Here Aramis might have arranged an assignation. Here Porthos…’ Ah, but, Three Musketeers and Monte Cristo had already been written. It was Musketeers money that paid for Dumas’s writer’s retreat, not the retreat that inspired the writing. If the Maison de Jules Verne in Amiens feels a bit like a spaceship, a submarine, a shuttle for a lunar expedition, well: chicken, egg, egg, chicken.

A house alone won’t do it. I walked through the door of 48 Doughty Street, now the Charles Dickens Museum, expecting, if not quite Mr Wemmick’s Walworth castle, then at least the musk of ink and blotting paper, the echo of a scratching pen, the sense of an eternal deadline hanging over the place like secrets over Chesney Wold. Too many years have intervened, not enough Dickensiana remains. The rooms feel underfurnished. Boz woz here, but he isn’t now. You need stuff and you need it in situ.

Pitzhanger Manor, John Soane’s country house, suffers from not-enough-stuff syndrome

Pitzhanger Manor, John Soane’s country house in Ealing before Ealing became zone 3, suffers from not-enough-stuff syndrome. The manor has been restored to a turn, but where is the clutter? The classical cast-offs, the gothic oddities, the death masks, life masks, sarcophagi and thousand curious thingummybobs? It is a Soanean skeleton with insufficient flesh or features. For the full portrait, make for the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, crammed from crypt to rafters with a lifetime’s shopping and hoarding. Imagine growing up in such a home. Scant space for toy forts among the cork models of the ruins of Pompeii and the Temples of Paestum. In adulthood, George Soane published a bitter attack on his father’s taste. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Soane Snr had ‘reared this mausoleum for the enshrinement of his body’. The library was a ‘satire upon the possessor, who must stand in the midst of these hoarded volumes like a eunuch in a seraglio; the envious… guardian of that which he cannot enjoy’. At the back of the house was Soane’s ‘lofty cave’:

Here are urns that once contained the ashes of the great, the wise and the good; here are relics broken from the holy temples of Greece and Italy; here is the image of the Ephesian Diana, once the object of human adoration, but now only valued as a rarity that by its high price may feed the grovelling pride of its possessor.

George didn’t put his name to the article, but his father knew exactly who it was. A room of one’s own is one thing, but a whole house of one’s own is hard on one’s housemates.

If you are to leave your house to a grateful nation, do it with grace. Offer the stuff, but stuff the stipulations. When Jim Ede went to America in 1931 and visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, he rebuked the house’s former chatelaine for stipulating in her will that nothing be changed: ‘not an inkpot nor a chair shifted’. Yet when he left Kettle’s Yard to the University of Cambridge 40 years later, he did just the same. Not a pebble to be moved, not a plant repotted. Curators ever since have battled to keep Jim’s rooms just as they were, while letting the house go on living.  

Rope off carpets, put teasels on every seat cushion, corral visitors along corridors and you create rooms no better than vitrines. Soft furnishings as taxidermy. The Mackintosh House in Glasgow must spend half its annual income on shampooing Charles Rennie’s cream carpets, but how nice it is to get in every nook and corner of the rooms.

In Kyoto, at the house of the potter Kawai Kanjiro, I jumped when a dark shadow in a room of dark lacquer opened one lazy eye and yawned. If, once in an autumn moon, a cat knocks over a vase, so be it. Good that a house should have a heartbeat long after the ghosts are gone.

Laura Freeman’s Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists is published by Jonathan Cape.