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Please note the house will be temporarily closed for 4 weeks from 14 March 2024

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Open: Tuesday–Sunday, 11am–5pm

We are closed on Bank Holiday Mondays

Please note the house will be temporarily closed for 4 weeks from 14 March 2024

Stories

Jim Ede’s Influences: Ottoline Morrell

This Women’s History Month we’re sharing stories of women who influenced the making of Kettle’s Yard. In this blog post, Senior Curator, House & Collection Inga Fraser tells us more about Lady Ottoline Morrell.

On page ten of the House Inventory prepared in advance of Jim and Helen Ede’s gift to the University of Cambridge (comprising Kettle’s Yard and all the artworks and objects within) is listed ‘2 pomanders, made by Ottoline Morrell’. A pomander is an orange, studded with cloves, which is dried then placed or carried to scent the person or the surrounding environment.

Ottoline was highly sensitive to smell, and pomanders were just one method through which she sought to affect the spaces in which she lived and moved through. Potpourri and fresh flowers were another, and she often travelled with smelling salts. When her lover, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for anti-war campaigning during the First World War, Ottoline brought lavender bags, scented soap, eau de toilette and little bunches of sweet-smelling herbs to his prison cell.

Today at Kettle’s Yard, one of Ottoline’s pomanders sits on a glass tazza on a sideboard in the lower extension. It is placed next to a large tun shell (from a sea snail), adjacent to which it looks more like a sea urchin than pomander. This otherworldly association is not out of place when considering an object that was once in the hands of Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938). Ottoline was a tall, striking woman who dressed extravagantly in a style considered quite out-of-step with the contemporary. Virginia Woolf described Ottoline as a mermaid with ‘red-gold hair in masses, cheeks as soft as cushions with a lovely deep crimson on the crest of them, and a body shaped more after my notion of a mermaid’s than I’ve ever seen…’ In the letter to her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, Woolf admits, ‘I was so much overcome by her beauty that I really felt as if I’d suddenly got into the sea and heard the mermaids fluting on their rocks.’[1]

 

Lady Ottoline Morrell with friends, including Jim Ede (bottom centre) possibly by Philip Edward Morrell vintage snapshot print, late 1930 2 5/8 in. x 3 7/8 in. (66 mm x 97 mm) image size Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Dame Helen Gardner Bequest, 2003 Photographs Collection NPG Ax143288

Jim Ede came to know Lady Ottoline Morrell in the 1920s, when he and Helen lived at Elm Row in Hampstead in London. He described Ottoline as ‘Elizabethan’, a ‘tall erect figure accentuated by her picture gowns of stiff silk on which the family pearls lay in neglected grandeur’. Jim noted that despite being an ‘aristocrat’ – the ‘daughter of a Duke’ – Ottoline ‘liked to spend her life in the company of artists, painters, writers, musicians’ and it was through Ottoline that he met ‘many of the leading thinkers of the day’.[2]

At that time Lady Ottoline and her husband, the politician Philip Morrell, were living in Bloomsbury at 10 Gower Street. There, and in her previous homes at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire and 44 Bedford Square in London, Ottoline had set about creating interiors that reflected her unique personality and palette of interests. In terms of style, they are a complete contrast to those Jim Ede created. A biographer, Sandra Jobson Darroch describes, ‘Chinese boxes and cabinets, blue China and Chelsea porcelain, Samarkand rugs, silk hangings, lacquered screens’ at Garsington, for example.[3] There, the walls were painted a rich Venetian red and iridescent sea green: colours chosen from the palette at Bolsover Castle – an estate within the family that Ottoline had visited as a child.[4]

And yet Ottoline and Jim shared a seriousness of approach. In her memoirs, Ottoline wrote:

‘Furnishing and decorating houses is a thing my friends like to think that I have a special talent for… When people say to me, ‘How you must enjoy decorating houses. It must be such fun,’ I turn away, and in my thoughts answer, ‘How little you understand or know all the anxiety and travail that this task is. It is no more pleasant or amusing than to paint a picture or to write a book.’[5]

Juliette Huxley, who worked as a governess for Ottoline’s daughter, confirms the investment Ottoline made in the task of arranging her home, writing:

‘Both Garsington and later, Gower Street were works of art in themselves, creating their own special climate. For where Philip mostly chose the furniture, it was Ottoline who assembled the lovely colours, the harmony, the pictures, the shades which threw their light of intimate appeal. She gave the breath of life to her décor and within these walls, which reflected her personality, she moved with her own particular dignity.’[6]

Lady Ottoline Morrell possibly by Philip Edward Morrell vintage snapshot print, 1923-1924 2 7/8 in. x 2 7/8 in. (73 mm x 72 mm) image size Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Dame Helen Gardner Bequest, 2003 Photographs Collection NPG Ax141940
Arthur David Waley; Jim Ede; Walter D'Arcy Cresswell by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Vintage snapshot print, late 1930. 2 7/8 in. x 3 1/2 in. (72 mm x 88 mm) image size. Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Dame Helen Gardner Bequest, 2003 Photographs Collection NPG Ax143290

Like Jim, Ottoline found a degree of spiritual purpose and uplift in crafting the spaces of her houses. In an unpublished essay on Garsington, Ottoline wrote:

‘The house has all the magic thrill to me, even tho’ I have lived within its walls and it has become absolutely familiar to me, pressed so near that we almost seem one. I have interpenetrated the house – vivified it – filled it with flaring orange – and reds and greens – filled it with myself – my thoughts – actions.’[7]

Writing about Elm Row in similarly transcendental terms in his book A Way of Life, Jim Ede describes:

‘as I opened the gate […] I had the impression of entering a church, so sudden was the silence which fell on me, or of diving into a reach of water, so green and cool and fresh it was; and as I shut the gate my world became timeless, and a combining sense of past and future, a bubble insubstantial and invulnerable.’

From Ottoline, Jim also learned the art of hosting. An image from Lady Ottoline Morrell’s personal photograph albums shows Jim in the garden at Gower Street with the poet D’Arcy Cresswell and the scholar Arthur Waley. But Ottoline was also a patron to numerous artists, facilitating commissions and even providing refuge for pacificists such as Duncan Grant during the First World War.

In 1916 she wrote:

‘Come then gather here – all who have passion and desire to create new conditions of life – new political ideas new forms of life and friendships – new visions of art and literature and new magic worlds in poetry and music.’[8]

Jim observed how Ottoline ‘never seemed at all aware of anything but the thought of those around her’, how she would ‘concern herself with everyone, finding them little presents, watching for their needs, making herself acquainted with their work, and doing all she could through many social contacts to advance them.’ Above all, he writes, ‘She taught me a beauty and rhythm in fine manners and showed me a gentleness and intimacy which was never self-seeking save that it expressed her spiritual belief.’[9]

Despite their different aesthetic approaches then, Jim found much to admire in Ottoline’s way of life that he brought to Kettle’s Yard, along with her pomander.

Lady Ottoline Morrell; Maria Huxley (née Nys); Lytton Strachey; Duncan Grant; Vanessa Bell by Unknown photographer vintage snapshot print, July 1915 Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Dame Helen Gardner Bequest, 2003 Photographs Collection NPG x140432
Lady Ottoline Morrell possibly by Philip Edward Morrell vintage snapshot print, 1912 4 in. x 2 3/8 in. (103 mm x 61 mm) image size Purchased, 1979 Photographs Collection NPG Ax13020
Lady Ottoline Morrell with her pug Soie possibly by Lady Ottoline Morrell vintage snapshot print, 1920 2 1/2 in. x 1 3/8 in. (62 mm x 34 mm) image size Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Dame Helen Gardner Bequest, 2003 Photographs Collection NPG Ax140812

[1] Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, 22 May 1917. Virginia Woolf Collection of Papers. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library.

[2] [Unpublished manuscript] H.S. ‘Jim’ Ede, ‘Between Two Memories: An Autobiography by Jim Ede’ (c.1946-47) Papers of H.S. Ede, KY/Ede/4/1/1.

[3] Sandra Jobson Darroch, Ottoline: The Life of Lady Ottoline Morrell (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976) p. 158

[4] Miranda Seymour, Ottoline Morrell: Life on a Grand Scale (1998) p. 35

[5] Ottoline Morrell in R. Gathorne-Hardy (ed.) Ottoline: The Early Memoirs (1963) p. 151

[6] Juliette Huxley Leaves of the Tulip Tree (1986) p. 40.

[7] [Unpublished manuscript] Ottoline Morrell, ‘Garsington’ (1916) p. 1. Box 1, Folder 3. Lady Ottoline Morrell papers. University of Maryland, USA.

[8] Ibid., p. 4.

[9] [Unpublished manuscript] H.S. ‘Jim’ Ede, ‘Between Two Memories: An Autobiography by Jim Ede’ (c.1946-47) Papers of H.S. Ede, KY/Ede/4/1/1.

An extended discussion of Lady Ottoline Morrell’s self-fashioning in dress, interiors and photographic portraiture can be found in Inga Fraser, ‘Body, room, photograph: negotiating identity in the self-portraits of Lady Ottoline Morrell’ in Anne Massey and Penny Sparke (eds.) Biography, Identity and the Modern Interior (London: Ashgate, 2013) pp. 65-89.