n 1940, Morris and his partner Arthur Lett-Haines (“Lett”) set up the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Benton End, their idyllic art retreat on the outskirts of Hadleigh in Suffolk, which attracted star students such as Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling.
Morris sourced and grew a huge range of plants there, cultivating horticultural gems such as Anemone pavonina, jewel-like flowers in shades of red and pink. The author Christopher Woodward wrote that “the sloping garden combined Morris’ artist-bred irises with perhaps the most interesting collection of plants in post-war Britain. And propped up in the beds were the students’ easels.”
Crucially, the six consigned paintings have a strong personal connection to Morris and Benton End. “They come from the Wakefield family collection who had deep ties with both Cedric and Lett; Lady Wakefield’s mother was at Benton End as a student, so the family visited many times becoming close friends with them both. They were really supportive patrons of Cedric’s for the latter part of the 20th century.” says Frances Christie, Sotheby’s Head of Modern & Post War British Art.
Christie stresses that the six works for sale reflect the full range of Morris’s techniques, illustrating how the artist incorporated plant life into his paintings in innovative and expert ways. “The collection includes a small still life with a tiger moth which feels much more like a Dutch Old Master with its rich, dark palette in contrast to his super bright nasturtiums - Still-life Nasturtiums and Pears, (1952), where the palette is properly zingy with bright pinks and oranges.” Still-life Nasturtiums and Pears hung in the dining room at Benton End for several years.
Christie adds: “His Flowers in a Vase, September Diagram has quite a different atmosphere as late summer flowers are positioned in front of a doorway at Benton End that gives it a rather Surrealist, Paul Nash feel.” The largest picture in the group is The Schnake Pot (1969). “It shows Morris’s powers of observation at its zenith and you almost want to reach out and feel the damp mould blooming on the terracotta.” The variety of succulent shrub he developed himself, Cotyledon Arbiculata Cedric Morrisi, is seen cascading out of the giant terracotta pot.
"It is not “the flowers’ beauty that he was painting, or even exactly their look, so much as their life”
The colour palette and range show he interpreted different botanical specimens during the different seasons, comments Christie. “He wasn’t just reproducing exactly what he saw, he was painting subjects he knew intimately and thus portrays the personality of each plant and evokes the spirit of Benton End. I think this is what makes the flower pictures so powerful.” Or to quote the art historian Richard Morphet, Morris’ concern was with the “dynamics of the picture” when he was painting flowers. It is not “the flowers’ beauty that he was painting, or even exactly their look, so much as their life”.
Another work, Ratatouille (1954), is different in tone again. “His handling here is much more pared back and a little more graphic in its design. Nevertheless, the tomatoes look like you can pick them up and munch them,” says Christie. The image also features scrumptious aubergines and peppers, making it a gastronome’s delight (the painting was used on the cover of Colin Spencer’s Feast for Health, A Gourmet Guide to Good Food, Dorling Kindersley, 1987).
In 2019, Benton End was purchased by the Pinchbeck Charitable Trust which plans to reopen the residence as a centre for art and horticulture under the ownership of the Garden Museum. “This would not be a rural outpost of the Garden Museum. The Trust will be a hybrid of the Garden Museum and the heritage of Benton End and its neighbourhood. It will not be a museum, but once again a house where things happen,” says the museum director, Christopher Woodward.
The Garden Museum will begin renewing Morris’ garden later this year. Lucy Skellorn, a research assistant involved with the project, says that long term, the aim is to restore Benton End’s post-war bohemian glamour and atmosphere, build an exhibition gallery and spaces for learning dedicated to the art of the garden, and to make the building more accessible. Bridget Pinchbeck, who bought the property in 2019, says that the partnership between the trust and the museum “ensures that the enchanting story of the house and the characters who inhabited it will not be lost”.
"There has certainly been a renaissance of interest from younger generations in Benton End, who love the idea of a Bloomsbury-esque place where there was a meeting of common minds in this magical oasis."
“There has certainly been a renaissance of interest from younger generations in Benton End who love the idea of a Bloomsbury-esque place where there was a meeting of common minds in this magical oasis. Everyone speaks so passionately about their time at Benton End and there really was no other place like it. Compared to London art schools which had a much stricter timetable of life-drawing classes etc, this was clearly much more of an organic place where classes spilled out into the garden and anything was possible,” says Christie.
The Morris renaissance has, meanwhile, been boosted by the fashion designer Erdem whose latest menswear collection is inspired by Cedric and Lett. “His [Morris’] artwork is so modern, and has such a sense of colour and romance,” said the designer, who used Benton End as a photoshoot location for the clothing collection. The garments are bursting with colour, drawing on the yellows and purples of Morris’ irises. The couture-gardening crossover illustrates how Morris, neglected of late, is more in fashion than ever.