Plans are currently underway for the former home of Sir Cedric Morris, one of Britain's most celebrated painters, one day to open to the public as part of the Garden Museum. Benton End, regularly depicted in his paintings, was also where Morris ran the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, which counted Lucian Freud among its students.
Richard Lowkes: Can you tell us about your plans to restore Sir Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines’ home at Benton End and how the idea came about?
Bridget Pinchbeck: The charity, Benton End House and Garden Trust, was established just over a year ago after purchase of the property, with the express intention of reviving the intense and colourful spirit of artistic and horticultural endeavour practised there when it was home to Cedric and Lett. After founding the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in nearby Dedham where Lucian Freud, their young pupil, supposedly caused the fire that burned down the studio and its destruction being to the delight of their neighbour, Alfred Munnings, the men took the school to Benton End and re-established it there. It flourished throughout the Second World War where Benton End was, to quote the artist Glyn Morgan, “a place apart where painting is the most important thing in life.” At the time, Cedric was also becoming highly regarded in horticultural circles for his plant breeding, particularly of irises, ninety varieties at least being directly attributable to him, as well as many other plants.
After Lett’s death in 1978 and then Cedric’s in 1982, the School discontinued and the house and garden were sold on. However, a couple of years ago we were led serendipitously into the world of Cedric and Lett by two exhibitions in London, both celebrating the work that had gone on at Benton End. They were exhibitions of Cedric’s work - one of his flower and vegetable paintings at the Garden Museum and one at Philip Mould’s Gallery of the paintings Cedric worked on while on his travels abroad.
While attending one of the lectures at the Garden Museum, during the programme that ran throughout the course of the exhibitions, we discovered that Benton End was, in fact, for sale. The idea came about to secure the property for it to become a place to celebrate equally its unique artistic, horticultural, and historic assets. Plans are underway, now in collaboration with the Garden Museum, to develop the property as a centre for the study of both gardening and painting.
RL: What happened to Benton End after Morris’ death in 1982. What state did you find it in?
BP: The house passed into private hands upon Morris’ death but, fortuitously, little was done over the intervening years to alter the fabric of the building or, indeed, the garden, despite Morris leaving a request in his will for his plants to be dug up and distributed. For a building of such historic interest and grand age, it is in remarkably good condition and to our delight, the garden, under careful management, is revealing once again many of the same plants that Morris collected so assiduously on his travels, bringing them home to Suffolk. We are in the process of tracking down many others that we know inhabited the soil within the confines of Benton End’s garden, as there are multiple surviving lists and records. Our aim is to have them growing happily there as they did in Cedric’s time.
RL: More than a hobby, for some artists, gardening was, or is, an integral part of the creative process. How did Cedric Morris combine his work as a gardener with his art?
BP: Separating Cedric notionally from the practice of either gardening or art would make it impossible to describe him fully.
Cedric was not an academic , but as you detail in your description of the painting that’s for sale, ‘Cabbages’, he was without doubt, a consummate plantsman with a detailed knowledge of botany and horticulture. To quote Richard Morphet, Cedric’s concern was with the “dynamics of the picture” when he was painting flowers. It is not, however, “the flowers’ beauty that he was painting, or even exactly their look, so much as their life”. Cedric himself wrote that “in the world of plants”, he did not “seek charm and loveliness”, but rather observed, “grimness, ruthlessness, lust and arrogance and lack of fear”. Beth Chatto, Cedric’s great friend and protégée remarked that Cedric could not have painted flowers with so remarkable a degree of insight if he had not known the plants intimately by being a ‘dirty hands gardener’, on his knees from dawn to dusk. Painting and gardening were therefore mutually inextricable within the context of Cedric’s work.
RL: Have you taken inspiration from Morris’ paintings as you recreate the garden?
BP: As mentioned, the garden, in a slow and measured way, is under development though we have not yet rigidly formulated how best that should be. It will take time to rediscover its hidden personality. What we know is that it will not be an exact representation of the garden as it was in Cedric’s time. Plants and trees have grown and taken on their own characters in the intervening years since Cedric crafted its outline. It was never a designed or designer’s garden. He was a plantsman, first and foremost and the plants he grew there and often painted, reflected his broad interest in their shapes, forms and provenance.
RL: Are there plants depicted in ‘Cabbages’, which are of particular interest?
BP: Cedric was an exceptional colorist – both in his representation of flowers and vegetables. Each vegetable has its own determined character. Speaking of his depiction of flowers, Richard Morphet comments in his 1984 catalogue of Cedric’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) that “No less remarkable are Cedric’s paintings of edible produce. Fruit and vegetables are displayed - almost offered - to us with the real satisfaction of a gardener and a gastronome.”
The picture depicts Buddleja flowers in earthenware vases which have a historical relationship with Benton End, as the Reverend Adam ‘Buddle’ had lived at the property during the early 1700’s - it is his name from whom the plant’s is derived.
RL: Is there a way people can support the Benton End House and Garden Trust?
BP: Absolutely. We welcome all offers of support - primarily financial and promotional at this stage. More information can be obtained by going to our website and signing up to our newsletter or following our Instagram account. Pledges for direct donations may be made to:
Benton End House & Garden Trust,
c/o Matthew Wilkinson,
Moore Green Chartered Accountants,
22, Friars Street
Suffolk . C10 2AA.
We look forward to hearing from you and welcome contributions to the future of Benton End.