I was happily lost in Cambridge, enchanted by its gothic backstreets and Georgian terraces of dainty yellow brick, taken by a college green with an apple tree in the middle, which turned out to be the spot where Isaac Newton first imagined gravity after the famous apple bounced off his head, which gave some inkling as to the enormous significance this place has played in the history of human thought.
I wandered over the River Cam and its sighing bridges, over to the other bank, which immediately assumed a far more quiet, residential feel, and ended up stumbling on Kettle's Yard, the personal art collection of a former director of the Tate, housed in his old home, which he bequeathed to the university on condition it was left exactly as is, which to me is what really makes the place such an intriguing treasure. It may be one of the key collections of British Modernism, but I love the place more because it seems like a manifesto on the art of domestic living.
Inside it feels cottagey, cosy, intimate. Gentle light pours through Venetian blinds onto whitewashed walls, with art dotted around the decidedly homely interior: a Ben Nicholson sits humbly on a shallow ledge above the spare single bed with its brown woollen cover and sheets of raw unbleached cotton; an Alfred Wallace painting of a boat hangs quietly above the bathroom sink, again, a sink of plain white enamel, no frills, just the lovely, minimal clutter of the pictures, every single one of them in the plainest wooden frame. The grain and wear of wood is everywhere, so much beautiful wood wooden tables, wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden chairs that invite you to sit in them, which you're happy to discover you're allowed to, and then quietly ponder an arrangement of pebbles on a wooden table.
There are lots of little clusters of pebbles in Kettle's Yard, all arranged so precisely, in simple spirals on the plainest empty table, pebbles raised to aesthetic objects by the simple and profound act of placing them deliberately in space, and through some transformation of the act of looking; this idea's made explicit by the placing of a tiny, matchbox-sized Ben Nicholson oil painting of simplified circular shapes on the window ledge next to a series of similar shaped shells, as if to say the pebbles and shells should be seen in equivalent terms. Continuing this theme, a big plexiglass lens hovers in front of a row of plants by window and skylight, revealing their enlarged details again, it's all about the experience of looking, this time through a big magnifying glass.
The house is like a meditational exercise designed to put you in a simple present moment, through the calmness and clarity and mindfulness of this basic, fundamental human act. The house seems to be telling us that the important part of the artistic experience is precisely this kind of looking, rather than the particular paintings one happens to be in front of. I'm inclined to agree.
When I was done looking and it felt like time to leave, I wandered by some rose bushes that emerged on a modest path running round the back of a row of houses, like emerging from a secret garden, where I left this treasure trove of quiet mindfulness and wandered back to look intently at bustling, dignified Cambridge.
Pictured: Cottage Droom at Kettle's Yard (top) and the main house. With many thanks to the kind people at Kettle's Yard.
To see Toast's House&Home collection, click here.