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Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett in rehearsal for The History Boys

Photograph by Ivan Kyncl

Untold Stories book cover

courtesy Faber & Faber

Photograph by Alex Bailey

Alan Bennett
Untold Stories
London: Faber & Faber, 2005

Untold Stories includes a family memoir as well as Bennett’s diaries for the years 1996 to 2004. The anthology won the PEN / Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, 2006.

A Room of My Own [pp. 524-531 (pp. 529-531 reproduced here)]


After I took my degree I stayed on at Oxford to do research in medieval history, and also taught a little. I now had rooms in Merton Street, the back looking over to the Botanic Gardens. Some of my pupils were already collectors and possessed a good deal more of expertise than I ever had. David Bindman, later Professor of Art History at University College, London, was a pupil and would show me old master drawings he had picked up for a song, and another pupil, Bevis Hillier, later a biographer of John Betjeman and writer on the arts generally, would fetch along ceramics; I knew little of either and could neither confirm nor deny the confident attributions both boys put forward. But they taught me a more useful lesson than I ever taught them, namely that my own taste was for surfaces.

I was no collector. I cared more for the look of an object than for what it was. My aim was to make a room look interesting and cosy. I didn’t see the paintings as art objects as much as objects in a setting, and had the unashamedly English notion of pictures as furniture. I preferred them above tables, behind flowers, say, dimly lit by lamps or even half hidden by books. I would never want a room in which a painting was spotlit; it smacks too much of a museum, or a certain sort of gallery.

It is for these reasons that almost my favourite museum is the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge. It has too much on the walls and there is furniture besides, but it adds up to just the kind of inspired clutter that has always appealed to me. When I was stationed in Cambridge in the fifties I used to go there on Saturday afternoons out of term when the museum (and the town) was virtually empty.

The first room I would head for was on the right at the head of the stairs. There were some grand pictures but they were mostly English paintings then – a portrait of Hardy by Augustus John, some Constable sketches and Camden Town paintings and, presiding over them all, another Augustus John, a portrait of Sir William Nicholson. He’s in a long thin black overcoat, hand outstretched resting on his stick, urbane, disdainful and looking not unlike the actor in the films of the time who played Professor Moriarty to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t even know then that William Nicholson was himself a painter; what it was I admired was his detachment and his urbanity to the extent that the first chance I got I bought a thin second-hand black overcoat which made me look as spidery as he did.

If I like the Fitzwilliam for its clutter, I also like another Cambridge museum for its lack of it, though Kettle’s Yard is not a museum at all but the home of Jim Ede, who gave it to the university in 1966. it caters to all my notions of art and interior decoration; the paintings (Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis), while individually delightful, are integral to the overall decorative scheme, even starting at the skirting board; nowhere else have I see pictures hung so close to the ground. Jim Ede, too, thought that paintings were not always best seen undeflected: ‘I remember how in Arezzo,’ he writes, ‘I went to see the Piero della Francescas, and saw nothing but an old faded curtain by an open window making shadows across the pictures.’

And so it is at Kettle’s Yard, the paintings part of an assemblage and subject to the changing light. There’s a mixture of old and modern furniture and though I don’t always like the stones and objets trouvés on top of tables and chests (the decorative charms of pebbles and driftwood for me is strictly limited) and I would never paint a room white … here the whole house glows.

I would be happy to live in Kettle’s Yard, feeling that if I did my life would be better, or at least different. It passes one of the tests of a congenial interior, that you feel you would like the food that is cooked here. At Kettle’s Yard you can practically smell it.

[Reproduction with kind permission of Forelake Ltd.]

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