Shell shock

Jay Winter is a leading Great War historian.

Jay Winter is a leading Great War historian.

Last night I heard Jay Winter speak on shell shock at the British Academy. it’s rare luxury to go to a lecture now – to know that for the next hour two all that’s going to be happening is writing and listening, and that someone clever is going to tell you something interesting that may not have occurred to you before. It’s a time for latitude, and thinking about your subject in a new way. Not to mention forcing you to think about it…

Professor Winter’s main argument was that the numbers of people – not just men – suffering from shell shock during and after WWI has been underestimated by, roughly, a factor of 10. Given the lack of consensus on what shell shock was at the time, and a mix of altruistic and cynical reasons for not diagnosing psychological trauma, this tentative figure is impossible to prove. But, says Winter, statistics from other conflicts suggest that a very conservative estimate for incidences of shell shock would be something like 25% of all Great War casualties.

Film poster for J'Accuse

J’Accuse, released in 1919, features an obviously shell-shocked man as a visionary.

If Winter is right, and he has good reason to think so, then shell shock should no longer be considered as an exceptional response to World War 1. Instead, psychological breakdown – among soldiers their families, and the male and female medical workers who served on the front – must be seen as a perfectly normal reaction to this profoundly abnormal of situations. A commonplace disaster, if you will.

It’s always been clear to me, and to Kettle’s Yard’s Andrew Nairne too, that Jim Ede was psychologically damaged by his wartime experiences. Not in an especially grand way, just in a quiet narrative of: returning, injured, early on in the war; being forced years later to confront wartime terrors through a second disaster; suffering a nervous breakdown; and carrying emotional scars for the rest of his long life.

In Jim’s case, I believe this scarring can be seen in two things: his pursuit of beauty through order and his difficulty with food. Jim always said that his problems with eating were due to internal damage from mustard gas, which may very well have been true. But his daughter Elisabeth also hints that they were exacerbated by stress. Following the Tate flood of 1928, Elisabeth says, Jim ‘developed terrible indigestion at night’. Clutching at straws? Maybe. But Jim’s troubles with eating are something that bind him tightly to Lawrence, whose own eating habits were idiosyncratic to say the least. This needs looking into more.

 

 

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Listening to Jim

The voice on the cassette is well-spoken, precise but thin. With a jolt I realise that 1989, the date of the recording, was the year before Jim died at the age of nearly 95. He is frustrated by his slowness at recalling names, blames ‘this nervous thing I’ve got’. His interviewer often supplies words for him, thinking he’s helping. She isn’t.

Front view of Tate Britain.

Jim Ede worked at the Tate for 14 years.

This is the first recording of Jim Ede I’ve been able to track down, the publicly available part – I believe – of a longer interview held in the Tate AV collection. And it’s on tape. I can’t remember the last time I played a tape and am nervous of accidentally breaking it, snarling the ribbons up in the readers or wiping it by holding down ‘record’. The quality is fuzzy too and this, coupled with Jim’s looping streams of consciousness, and his half-finished, sometimes inaudible sentences makes listening a very active business indeed. I think the recording is about 45 minutes long, and I keep rewinding to try and make out the words.In this last year of his life Jim is talking about events of some sixty years before, when he was an assistant at the Tate. ‘Assistant’ is a misleading word, for the Tate was then a tiny operation, and Jim had responsibility for the overall day-to-day running of the gallery. And in 1928, it was Jim who heard news in the early hours of the morning that the Thames had broken its banks and rushed into the Tate’s basement, where all the paintings were stored.

Jim recalls the flood with as much humour as dismay, despite the fact it was in part to blame for the nervous breakdown he suffered soon afterwards. In letters to his friends, Jim said that the chaos of that night had a triggering effect on latent memories of the Western Front that were ‘brought to the surface’. But on tape, he is skipping nimbly up and down ladders and wondering if he dare put his foot through some particularly hated picture (Watts’ Hope) and blame it on the wider catastrophe. Other parts of the story don’t quite square with what I’ve read or heard before, either –this testimony, like anyone’s testimony, is a recollection rather than a record of events – a recollection of a very distant time.

Bronze cast of Gaudier-Brzeska's Dancer

Ede’s love of Gaudier-Brzeska began at the Tate

Jim is kind about individuals, mostly, but still angered by what he saw as the Tate’s short-sightedness and ‘gross mishandling’ of acquisition during his fifteen years there. He speaks of his triumph in securing the first hanging of a Picasso in a British public gallery, only to be met by indifference from the board of trustees. The same happens when he is confronted, in a life-changing moment, with a room full of sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska which ‘nobody wanted to do anything [with] at all’.

Jim story of the Tate is a story of missed chances, of the failure to embrace the sea-change of Modernism and make relatively small investments in artworks that would now be worth millions. In Paris, Jim said, he ‘knew all the artists’ – the tragedy was that the Tate didn’t want to know them too.

Language

To work in biography is to be constantly bewildered. I read a letter by Lawrence, then one by Ede, and am struck by the similarity of the ways in which they discuss art and literature. The tone is conversational, whimsical, imaginative – yet shot through with the authority of conviction. Ede thinks the pairing of two chairs in Kettle’s Yard is ‘too matey’, Lawrence thinks Eric Kennington’s bust of him ‘almost shouts’. This shared tone speaks of something else shared between them, I think, before remembering I know next to nothing about the ways in which people talk about art either now or in the nineteen twenties. Perhaps all connoisseurs spoke like Ede and Lawrence, and the similarity does not hint at kindred spirits but merely kindred interests.

Only so much comfort can be taken from the well-worn phrase that the first step on the path to enlightenment is knowing that you know nothing. It is also the first, second and third steps of writing about anything outside your immediate experience – which biographers do all the time.

Eric Kennington's bust of Lawrence, 1926

Eric Kennington’s bust of Lawrence, 1926

Lawrence’s letter to Kennington is generous and perceptive. The bust represents, he says, ‘not me, but my top-moments, those few seconds in which I succeed in thinking myself right out of things’. The depth of his engagement makes me feel for artists who send out work for criticism only to receive anaemic, inadequate replies.For example, in 1945 Evelyn Waugh sent an early copy of Brideshead Revisited to his wife Laura, eager to know what the love of his life thought of the book he’d describing as his ‘magnum opus’. Laura’s reply was so insipid Waugh begged her to write again, reminding his wife that the book was dedicated to her and that he was anxious to hear her considered opinion on the work. Second time around, all Laura could come up with was a paragraph about possible conflicts with Catholic doctrine and the tortured sign – off: ‘I love you & admire you heartily. Laura.’

I’m sorry for Waugh but even sorrier for Laura who, not a good letter writer at the best of times, must have agonised over this second response, chewing her pen, staring out of the window, struggling to find the form of words her husband so desperately wanted to read.

Writing about art, and writing about words, have distinct challenges. With art a kind of translation is needed – how can language describe what is outside language? Our choices says as much about the way we think as they do about the thing we’re describing. And as for literature… If you read something marvellous than any response is likely to be inferior to the thing itself. ‘I admire it heartily’, perhaps. Oh dear.

 

Revolver

A portait of Lewis staring into the camera lens, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Wyndham Lewis by George Charles Beresford, 1913

Although Wyndham Lewis was one of Britain’s most successful Modernists, there are none of his works at Kettle’s Yard. This is not so very surprising, given that Jim Ede was a pacifist and Lewis’ relationship with fascism went rather beyond the flirtatious. But there may also be a more personal reason behind Ede’s choice to exclude Lewis from his collection.Yesterday I met Paul Edwards, a lecturer in British Modernism and chairman of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust. Paul told me a story about Ede and Lewis that might explain how the artist and writer achieved the rare feat of becoming persona non grata with the kind of man who would open up his family home to strangers, after a long separation from his daughters, on Christmas Day.

In 1931 Jim Ede published Savage Messiah, a life of the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska, who was killed in WWI and whose reputation Ede was trying to boost. Despite Gaudier-Brezska being one of the eleven artists to sign the Vorticist manifesto, Wyndham Lewis – who viewed himself as the leader of the Vorticists– was not mentioned once in Ede’s biography. Unimpressed, Lewis invited Ede to discuss this shocking omission with him in person. Jim agreed, but might have regretted it: when he arrived at the meeting, Lewis apparently whipped out a revolver, placed it on the table between them, and proceeded to give Ede a blow-by-blow account of his book’s failings.

Lewis’ autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), retains a flavour of what that conversation must have been. In it, like-for-like, he refuses to name Ede whilst pouring scorn on his interpretation of Gaudier-Brezska:

A sketch for Gaudier-Brezska's Vorticist sculpture 'Bird Swallowing a Fish'.

A sketch for Gaudier-Brezska’s Vorticist sculpture ‘Bird Swallowing a Fish’.

Gaudier has been written about under the heading ‘Savage Messiah’. There must be some claptrap about that. To be brave is not to be savage, not…messianic. He was gentle, unselfish, and excitable, and probably struck some people as fiery, uncouth, and messianic. No artist so fine as Gaudier could be a Messiah, as a matter of fact. Messianic emotionality and Art are incompatible terms…

Lewis presumably at least skimmed through Savage Messiah to know he wasn’t mentioned at all, but there’s no guarantee he read the book “properly” (but who am I to talk – I haven’t read a book “properly” in years). Blasting and Bombardiering cheerfully misremembers and misquotes many of the twenties’ iconic books – not least Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In fact, Lawrence – who admired Lewis – gets a whole chapter of his own in Blasting and Bombadiering, in which Lewis vents his frustration at what he sees as Lawrence’s waste of talent in the RAF ranks.

Perhaps Lawrence in some way bridges the gap between Lewis and Ede, the two artists’ wildly different perceptions of their mutual friend revealing how fiercely divided the ideologies of Modernism really were.

 

Interview with Smaranda Schiopu

Smaranda Schiopu is studying for an MA at London Met

Smaranda Schiopu is studying for an MA at London Met

Last week a fellow Ede researcher, Smaranda Schiopu, contacted me via twitter. Smaranda is writing an MA paper on Jim Ede and wanted to ask me a few questions. Here’s what she said, and what I said in return:

Smaranda: In some online bios of Jim Ede, it’s mentioned that he left the Tate due to them not being very open to his artistic proposals – as in he was trying to advance more of the modern art, whereas Tate was reluctant. Is this something you know about? Could this be true? If you had any details on this, I would love to hear about it!

Barbara: Yes, this is certainly one reason for his departure – there were others such as metal health. In particular the gallery placed a lot of emphasis on British rather than European art at the time, and as you know Modernism was very much a cosmopolitan movement. Later in life Jim also tried to lend and donate works to the Tate, which they refused. The Tate archive is a wealth of information on this subject so I recommend you go and check it out!

S: What do you think of the legacy that Jim Ede built, Kettle’s Yard, but also his involvement in the promotion of modern art back in the 20s/30s?

B: Ede was definitely in the vanguard in the 20s and 30s, but promotion as such was hampered by his disagreements with the Tate. I think his main contribution to art at this stage was as a patron, ‘buying’ the works of friends like the Nicholsons so they could subsist and continue painting, and then allowing them to buy back and sell for much higher prices when circumstances allowed.

As for KY – for me the most important legacy is its absolutely fantastic education remit. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff they do with the number of staff they have. It was always Ede’s idea to make art welcoming and accessible, and the current team at KY have done something very wonderful with this.

Arial view of children sitting on the floor creating a large piece of collaborative art.

Kettle’s Yard has a fantastic education programme.

3. Most people talk about Kettle’s Yard with a kind of admiration that’s almost mystical, as if it were a magical place. And I felt the same when I visited it, there is something so special about it, but I can’t tell exactly what. Did you have the same feeling?

Yes and no. But the space is specifically designed to make you feel that way. See if you can get hold of A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard published by Jim Ede in (I think) 1984, which should tell you all you need to know about his vision for the place. I will also forward you a talk of mine which touches on the subject towards the end, and have a look at A Winter Place on my blog for some of the beauties and challenges of this mysticism.

4. Is there any other place in England to have such a large collection of modern art? And I don’t mean museums or art galleries, I mean the effort of a single person to collect / or the blessing to have as friends such a collection of artists.

Hmm. Not sure. I don’t know of any so if you find one please let me know!

5. Do you have a favourite room, part of the house or object in the Kettle’s Yard collection?

View of a window at Kettle's Yard with a fisherman's net weight, plants and a small painting by Ben Nicholson. Ochre hues.

A postcard of Kettle’s Yard my mother sent me about ten years ago.

I love the window with the plants and the fishermen’s net weights. My mother sent me a postcard of this years ago and I still have it (see right). This view brings together light, text, the natural world in the spirit of curation and context that makes the space so special.

6. What did Kettle’s Yard mean to him? The making of the house, the collection? And to what extent was his wife involved in this? Again, in some online accounts, they are portrayed as partners in it, was it anything like that?

Helen’s place in the house is something that really interests me, again see my blog (Listening to Helen) for some thoughts on this. Her daughters talk about her great love of nature, so it’s speculated that the use of natural objects in the house is very much down to her. And she was – check this but I’m fairly sure it’s true – a trained and talented artist herself. The piano in the house was very much there for her use. But she wasn’t really happy at KY, and didn’t take part in the tours. It’s a very thorny issue.

7. Can we think of Kettle’s Yard in terms of cultural legacy and if yes, would you detail on this?

Yes. As for detail… well I’ve heard it described as a time capsule but that doesn’t really cover it. It is designed to be a cultural legacy in that Ede gave it to Cambridge University in 1966, and it is still maintained in the manner he wished (as far as possible). I think its lasting cultural value rests primarily in its uniqueness, and its radical re-imagining of gallery space.

Follow Smaranda’s blog: http://hellohhuk.wordpress.com

Listening to Helen

There are no women to speak of in Oil Men, and no sex at all. That was fine then, but it won’t do now. It was always strange to me that, “as a feminist”, I had managed to create a PhD thesis populated almost entirely by men. There were a few honourable mentions, most notably Gertrude Bell and the phenomenal ‘Ladies Allowed to Proceed to Persia’, but by and large it was a sausage party.

Helen Ede with her daughter, Mary, courtesy of Mary’s daughter Jane Adams.

Now there is Helen Ede, wife of Jim, mother to Mary and Elisabeth. Helen, whose swimming costume was so worn it was held together with safety pins and who left her children in a boarding school on the eve of WW2 to follow her husband to Africa. Helen’s daughters have been interviewed as part of the Kettle’s Yard Re:Collection project and there are hours upon hours of their reminiscences. Last week I spent a day with Elisabeth’s interviews. Sharp as a knife at eighty-six, she speaks of the pressures on her mother, Helen’s share in Ede’s anxieties and ambitions and her parents’ love for one another. And while Helen might have felt awful guilt at leaving her children behind, again, and again, while Jim travelled to France, Tangier and San Fransisco, Jim left Kettle’s Yard in the end for Helen’s health.

I went to a Practice Session at Kettle’s Yard back in January which focussed on Helen’s place in Kettle’s Yard. We heard how, every afternoon while Jim showed people around, Helen retreated to her own room. This was the only space in the house that was truly private – well, that and the tiny kitchen, which was also excluded from the tour. Helen was conspicuous by her absence, and in a philosophy that was supposed to embrace everything Jim conceded Helen this enclave.

Jim loved everything, says Elisabeth, and included his children in this general love. He did not make them special. But Helen was. She cannot, will not disappear.

Selfless

In A Way of Life (1984), Jim Ede writes that, were it not for T.E. Lawrence’s example, he could never have ‘given away’ Kettle’s Yard. This he did in 1966, donating the collection and house to the University of Cambridge. The handover proved to be a protracted, and bureaucratic affair that caused Ede considerable distress. What was it about Lawrence, long dead by then, that inspired Ede to persevere? What did such a monumental act of giving signify for Ede, and how did the memory of his friend help him to accomplish it?

Lawrence had a unique manner of self-sacrifice, and lived very frugally. He, like Ede, often gave away money to friends that he could well have spent himself. But what exactly did he give away that equated to Ede giving away Kettle’s Yard? He tried to give away fame, but was obliged to use his influence to get the sort of life he wanted – he even threatened suicide, apparently, to be allowed back into the RAF as an enlisted man. Both Ede and Lawrence struggled to be allowed to do things they believed to be good and selfless.

T.E. Lawrence astride a Brough motorbike reg no GW2275.

Ede sent Lawrence money towards a new motorbike just months before he died. Source: Western Morning News

Selfless. A word to get stuck on. We use it to mean the opposite of selfish, but it also suggests an absence of self. Ede’s relationship to Kettle’s Yard has been described as that of a mother’s to a child, but even that level of separation may be too much. Jim lived in Kettle’s Yard. Read one way, that’s a simple statement of fact. Read another, it’s a psychological and philosophical judgement. Did he give part of himself away in 1966, or even most of himself? If so, he may have done it because he felt compelled to commit an act not so much of selflessness as self-abnegation; exactly what commentators say Lawrence was doing when he first entered the ranks of the RAF.