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Benton End revisited. By Harry Mount

Blog | Jun 01, 2023

‘I wish to goodness you’d never set foot in Benton End,’ Maggi Hambling’s mother told the artist.

But, Hambling says, ‘It was too late.’ In 1960, the 15-year-old Hambling took her first two oil paintings to Benton End, a 16th-century Suffolk manor house – known as ‘the Artists’ House’ – in the nearby town of Hadleigh.

One of the artists, Arthur Lett-Haines (1894-1978), known as Lett, answered the door. The other artist, his partner, Sir Cedric Morris Bt (1889-1982), was having dinner. After dinner, both artists carefully examined the pictures.

Hambling writes in Benton End Remembered, ‘I received encouraging – though completely contradictory – criticism from each of them. I finally left what in Hadleigh was considered a notorious house at 9.30 in the evening. My mother thought I had been sold into the white slave trade.’

Benton End had an instrumental effect on Hambling – ‘It made me who I am… Lett taught me the importance of the imagination.’

Cedric and Lett bought Benton End in 1940 and moved their East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing there. From 1937, the school had been in Dedham, Essex, until it burnt down in 1939. At Benton End, Cedric created a garden famed for the irises he bred and painted.

The school was instrumental for a critical group of artists and writers: Vita Sackville-West; John Nash; Constance Spry; Elizabeth David; Ronald Blythe; Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.

Kathleen Hale (1898-2000) was so intrigued by Cedric and Lett, whom she met in Paris in 1922, that they starred in her books. Cedric is the dancing master in Orlando’s Home Life (1942). Lett is the Katnapper in Orlando the Marmalade Cat: His Silver Wedding (1944). Just as in the book (pictured, right), Lett really did darn a hole in his jacket with white wool and then paint on a pattern in watercolour.

One of the first pupils at Benton End was 17-year-old Lucian Freud. His portraits of plants and gardens will be in an exhibition at the Garden Museum in 2022.

A new exhibition at Firstsite, Colchester, reveals what an artistic and intellectual crucible Benton End was. Maggi Hambling’s moving portraits of Lett are on show. So are Cedric’s pictures of Benton End and the burnt school at Dedham. Lucian Freud is represented by a 1973 portrait, Small Head. There’s a fine 1955 drawing of John Nash by Hugh Cronyn.

After Cedric’s death in 1982, Benton End was sold. But now it is to be an art school and prized garden once more, after a revival of interest in Cedric Morris’s pictures and gardening contributions. In 2015, former Sissinghurst head-gardener Sarah Cooke’s display of Benton End irises was much prized at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. In 2018, two exhibitions opened in London: Cedric Morris: Artist-Plantsman at the Garden Museum, and Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall at Philip Mould & Co Gallery.

Having seen those shows, Rob and Bridget Pinchbeck, a philanthropist couple, stepped in and bought Benton End in 2018. They then transferred ownership to the Garden Museum.

The plan is to restore Cedric Morris’s garden in 2022. Some of his plants have survived his 40-year absence and others are being returned. The house will be restored, with an exhibition gallery and rooms dedicated to the art of the garden.

There will be workshops, events and masterclasses, both non-residential and residential.  Courses will cover horticulture, fine art, creative writing and photography.

Bridget Pinchbeck says, ‘It was Ronald Blythe, author and friend of Cedric and Lett, who best summed up the experience of Benton End: “The atmosphere was one of intellectual freedom. Everything was discussed. It was bohemian in the best sense. The whole atmosphere was exciting and liberating.” He added, “The greatest crime at Benton End was to be boring!” ’

Garden Museum Director, Christopher Woodward, says, ‘It 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.’

Benton End has been dubbed a British Giverny, after Claude Monet’s Normandy garden. It has also been compared to Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse and Bloomsbury salon.

Still today the house is bewitching, with its rambling, half-timbered extensions, diaper brickwork and heavily mullioned windows. In the sprawling garden, you can still make out the ghosts of its soon-to-be-revived past.

Frances Mount, a garden expert and nursery-owner (and my aunt) who worked at Benton End from 1971-79, remembers, ‘It was very much a painter’s garden with much use of strong colours put together, such as orange poppies with scarlet and lots of small plants like old-fashioned pinks and dianthus which concentrated the eye.

‘Cedric was not a botanist and was vague about Latin names, but he knew how plants were formed. I think he could not have painted flowers in the way he did without an intimate knowledge of the shape of plants.’

The garden was testament to Cedric’s extraordinary horticultural skills. He was the first person in Britain to produce a pink iris; he bred an oriental poppy, Papaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’. As a breeder of bearded irises, he was peerless. His irises are usually preceded by ‘Benton’: Benton Damozel; Benton Ophelia; Benton Fandango.

He then painted those irises in a robust, original way. Kathleen Hale said, ‘He would begin calmly at the top left-hand corner of the canvas and paint down and across until he had completed the whole picture. He never made any corrections, which accounted for the freshness and spontaneity of his painting.’ Lett, by contrast, Hale said, painted in a low-colour, intellectual, weird, abstract, erotic way.

Cedric was a baronet, born into a family of Swansea industrialists and iron founders. Lett, born in London and educated at St Paul’s, fought in the First World War. He married twice before he began his relationship with Cedric in 1919.

It was an unconventional relationship which produced a freedom and magic alchemy for those who lived, worked and studied at Benton End.

‘Lett and Cedric were open about their homosexuality at a time when it was illegal to have such a relationship, and they also conducted a fight against the philistinism of the day,’ says the writer Ronald Blythe, still happily with us at 99.

Lett cooked delicious meals and peppered the conversation with insights. ‘Mischievous and sometimes wicked, he liked to dramatise situations and delighted in stirring up scandals,’ said Hale.

Inside, Benton End was a world of stylish disorder. The gardener Beth Chatto (1923-2018), who first met Cedric in the 1950s, remembered bunches of drying herbs and ropes of garlic hanging from hooks on a door: ‘Shelves were crammed with coloured glass, vases, jugs, plates with mottoes –a curious hotchpotch.’ Maggi Hambling recalls Lett proudly showing Elizabeth David around his larder, lifting the silver lid from a tray of cold collations – ‘and out flew a moth’.

The prevailing gods at Benton End, in the house and the garden, were wit, knowledge and freedom of thought.

Frances Mount says, ‘Cedric helped me to realise that I could achieve what I wanted to do. He allowed people to be themselves. It was very free. There was nothing orderly except for meals. There was no sense of anybody being cajoled into doing something.’

Here’s hoping the new Benton End will breathe life back into those old household gods.

Life with Art: Benton End and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing is at Firstsite, Colchester, until 18th April