Beyond the Garden Wall and Artist Plantsman
Beyond the Garden Wall at Philip Mould’s gallery in Pall Mall is one of two London exhibitions devoted to Cedric Morris; the other, Artist Plantsman also sponsored by Philip Mould, is at the Garden Museum in Lambeth. It is fortuitous that the works on display are divided in this fashion as it affords us insights into two of the great passions of Morris’s life – flowers and travel. He is deservedly celebrated in both fields; in the art world for his vivid exuberant flower paintings and in the horticultural world for the wonderful bearded irises he bred.
He is almost as well known for the informal art school he founded at Benton End in Suffolk with his lifetime partner Arthur Lett-Haines, known as Lett. When a few years back I read descriptions of the joyous creative life at Benton End I wished I had been born a bit earlier and could somehow have gone there to savour the unique atmosphere made up of art, gardening, June iris parties and (courtesy of Lett) good food. This could never have happened but these two exhibitions provide a satisfying visual background to all that I had imagined.
At Philip Mould’s gallery we see that Morris, who was born in South Wales in 1899 to a wealthy family (his father was a baronet, a title he was to inherit) had done a lot of living before Benton End. He worked as a farmer in Canada, studied in Paris, trained horses in WW1, met and fell in love with Lett in 1919 and sometimes with him and sometimes alone, travelled and painted in Cornwall, Algeria, Italy, France, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus Turkey, even venturing as far as St Helena.
Some 40 paintings from these countries are represented in the Pall Mall exhibition together with some interesting early works such as his portrait of Francis Hodgkins in which we see early signs of his use of striking colour. Morris loved birds and in fact owned a number of exotic species and we see here two bird paintings Pin Mill and Black- Headed Gulls and Wood Pigeons in the Stour Valley in which he has captured the essence of birdness in much the same way as he himself says an artist should convey ‘the esoteric meaning of plants’ something he achieved in his flower paintings
In the landscapes painted on his travels we see examples of his exploration of colour. ‘Count the greens’ said Philip Mould and indeed in Morris’s St Helena landscapes the shaded of green are many and various and in Diana’s Peak, they are set off by yellows and reds in the foreground. We also see examples of his unusual technique when applying paint. In Connemara Water thick dabs of paint applied with the end of the brush perfectly depict the choppy wavelets. Other idiosyncratic techniques included the fact that he never did any preparatory sketches but applied paint directly starting at the top left hand corner of the canvas and painting down to the bottom right. Further he ever corrected or overpainted. If he didn’t get it right first time he abandoned the canvas. ‘I know exactly what I want to do before I start …It’s all …worked out; every position of every flower, every shape, every colour. It’s all done complete in my head.’ he is quoted as saying.
At the same time as he was painting, his travels abroad provided opportunities to collect seed and cutting to indulge his other great passion – flowers. The exhibition at the Garden Museum contains in the main, the flower paintings for which the artist is best known today. It also features paintings of Benton End by other artists, one of which Cedric’s Garden is by Kathleen Hale creator of the s Orlando the Marmalade Cat books. She was not a pupil at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing which Morris and Lett founded in Suffolk but both Magi Hambing and Lucien Freud were, Freud possibly even causing the original building to burn down with the result that the school moved to Benton End. This house big enough for the art school, also had a 3½ acre garden the source of Morris’s other claim to fame, his plantsmanship which culminated with his breeding of the fabulous Benton irises. These, and other specimens from his travels plant- hunting (which continued in the winter when the school was closed) grew abundantly at Benton End creating a garden which many considered magical.
In this exhibition we also see Wartime Garden a painting of the vegetable garden in which we can once again count the greens. There are also still life pictures of cabbages, lemons and baskets of fruit all a nod to Lett’s culinary skills – apparently everyone ate well at Benton End.
The most ravishing however are the flower paintings: Iris Seedlings in shades of lilac, mauve and purple; The Black Tulip a mysterious study in similar but darker shades; Heralding a variety of blue and yellow flowers in a blue vase against a misty blue landscape background, are just a few of these magnificent canvases on show.
In fact it was his landscapes, which originally made Morris’s reputation for although he went through a period of neglect just after his death he sold extremely well during his lifetime. Now however, the rising stars are his flower paintings, the prices of which have increased dramatically. An oil of irises and tulips, once the property of Peggy Guggenheim, sold for £7,800 in 2004 but reached £22,000 in March this year but the record was set in April when a large painting, Summer Garden Flowers sold for £81,000.
It is fortunate that we can enjoy some of these superb paintings for little or no cost at:
Philip Mould & Co
18-19 Pall Mall
9.30 – 6pm Monday to Friday until the 22nd July Admission Free
The Garden Museum
Lambeth Palace Road
London, SE1 7LB
10.30-5pm Sunday – Friday
10.30 – 4pm Saturday Ticket £10.00