This was where many of the best things in life gathered: art, food, wine, sex, the natural environment. And he was instrumental in the creation of some of the UK’s most renowned post-war painters, including Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling.
Benton End was an amazing place where budding artists lived and studied under the tutelage of Cedric Morris and his lover Arthur Lett-Haines. Today it is celebrated in an exhibition that brings together alumni of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing for the first time.
Besides Freud and Hambling, the students included Frances Hodgkins, Valerie Thornton, David Carr, Lucy Harwood, and Richard Chopping. They lived and worked on the 16th-century rose farm near Hadleigh, Suffolk, where the emphasis was as much on gardening and cooking as it was on art.
Several works on loan to the Firstsite Gallery in Colchester have never been seen in public before. They include The Woodpeckers, a Morris painting of two red-headed birds riding on branches against a wintry background, which for decades has hung in a private home, slowly cracking and fading with age.
Morris and Lett, as he was called, “taught in a very hands-on way,” said Ben Coode-Adams, artist from Essex and chairman of the Victor Batte-Lay Foundation, an art collection focused on East Anglia. “It was more about working together and while they were clearly playing a leadership role, they weren’t dictatorial. It was really about getting the job done. They were interested in the people who were harnessing themselves.
Hambling, who began studying at Benton End while still in school, said the farm was “really where life began”. In an interview in 2017, she said: “Part of the appeal to me, the 15-year-old, was that she was called the Artist’s House and was known for all the vices under the sun.”
Benton End was considered very shady, Coode-Adams said. “There were always a lot of people, a lot of drinkers, always very good food. It was a pretty extreme party for the time. The house was “notoriously dirty – no one ever cleaned,” and there was a lot of sexual activity, Lett-Haines bringing a series of lovers alongside his long-standing relationship with Morris.
The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing was established by the couple in 1937, initially in Dedham, Essex. Sixty students have registered in nine months. After the Dedhams’ house burned down – apparently from a cigarette thrown by Freud – the school was re-established in Benton End, where it operated for 40 years.
There Morris devoted as much time to horticulture as he did to art, although the two often overlapped when painting plants and flowers. Students were also encouraged to paint in the expansive gardens of Benton End.
He rose at dawn to weed his beloved flower beds, leaving Lett-Haines in bed until noon. Morris produced at least 90 new varieties of irises, frequently traveling the Mediterranean and North Africa to find species to bring back to Suffolk. He also raised birds.
Lett-Haines was not interested in the garden, but passionate about food and cooking. Hambling remembered that he served couscous, which was almost unheard of in England in the early post-war years.
His dishes, served to the artist community twice a day, included other foods unusual at the time, including garlic, olives, and eggplants grown in the garden. Copious amounts of red wine accompany meals.
Benton End had a certain “vibe,” said Stuart Tulloch, program manager at Firstsite. “It was a cool place. It was liberal and open.
Although she produces well-known artists, there are others who studied at the school who “never had this recognition”. The exhibition “lifted a stone and discovered a teeming life below.”
In keeping with the Benton End philosophy, the exhibition halls are dotted with easels and paintings to encourage visitors to create their own works, which will then hang on the walls alongside the main exhibits. Firstsite also offers wellness, cooking and gardening workshops alongside the exhibit to reflect the character of the school.
Life with Art “brings together a superb selection of paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings showcasing the amazing artists and creative talent that emanates from East Anglia,” said Sally Shaw, Director of Firstsite. The aim was to “evoke a real feeling of Benton End”.
The school’s influence had been far-reaching, she said. “Morris was the only person of his generation to achieve national status as an artist and gardener, and our exhibition explores how these two disciplines intertwined to form one of the most remarkable artistic environments of the 20th century.”
In 2019, Benton End was acquired by the Pinchbeck trust. He plans to reopen the house and gardens as an art and horticultural center administered by the Garden Museum.
Life with Art: Benton End and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing is at the Firstsite Gallery in Colchester, Essex, until April 2022.