In 1945 Cedric Morris bred the first British species of pink bearded iris. He had already achieved considerable fame as a modernist painter, twice exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but now he was a star of the iris world. Horticulturalists of all stamps, from Vita Sackville-West to Constance Spry, would flock to the exotic, sprawling gardens at Benton End in Suffolk, where from 1939 Morris lived and ran a radical art school with his lifelong partner Arthur Lett-Haines.
Lett, as he was known, used to grumble about “these suspect gardeners”, who would distract Cedric from the more serious business of painting, and it’s true that while Morris’s reputation as a gardener waxed in the 1940s and 1950s, his esteem as a painter waned. However, a new exhibition at the Garden Museum – the first museum show devoted to Morris in three decades – sets out to demonstrate how closely these two passions intertwined.
In Paris in the early 1920s, Morris became friends with Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim and Man Ray. He experimented with abstraction and surrealism – but while the latter would leave a lasting mark on his style, he soon gravitated toward a disciplined, tightly controlled realism. When he returned to London at the end of the decade – a time of raucous parties, which he spent in the orbit of the Bright Young Things – his reputation as an artist was soaring. He painted landscapes captured from his compulsive travels in Britain and abroad (some of which can be seen in the exhibition’s commercial pendant, at Philip Mould & Company on Pall Mall). He painted portraits that were, in a memorable phrase attributed to Raymond Mortimer, “not speaking but shrieking likenesses”.
But Morris soon renounced high society, moving with Lett to Pound Farm in rural Suffolk. He had eight acres of land and the luxury of his first proper garden. In the decades to come, he produced a succession of absorbing, restless still-lives – perhaps it’s better to call them flower portraits, for they are animated by the characters and quirks of the subjects Morris loved better than any other. Sometimes his plants curve rhythmically across shimmering, semi-surrealist landscapes; sometimes they burgeon from the muted setting of the studio. His palette is lively but naturalistic; his impasto is often so heavy that while the petals point out at you, the paint-laden canvas bulges inward on itself.
Lucian Freud, one of Morris’s students, recalled that “Cedric taught me to paint, and more important to keep at it”. By displaying the portrait that Freud painted of his teacher in 1939, the exhibition hints that a reappraisal of Morris’s influence on the School of London, the group of postwar figurative painters that included Freud and Francis Bacon, and his place in British modernism more broadly, might be due. But for now, this brief, beguiling display is above all a celebration of a singular mind that realised fresh forms in art and life.
“Cedric Morris” (1930)
Casting himself partly into shadow, the artist turns to face us. He is handsome – urbanely dressed – but the black lines around his left eye and his rigid, narrowed eyebrow mark his features with fatigue. Behind him lies an inviting landscape of lilac fields, dotted with auburn trees.
A pivotal moment of Morris’s life is captured in this self-portrait. The year 1930 found him at the height of his painterly fame, with sell-out solo shows at Arthur Tooth & Sons gallery and election both to the London Group and the Seven and Five Society. But by this time he had already set his sights on the countryside, and he soon broke off the lucrative contracts and prestigious associations he had acquired in the capital.
“May Flowering Irises 2” (1935)
This painting depicts the first spring flowering after Morris began breeding irises in the summer of 1934. It’s one of his most arresting still-lives; textures alternate between the thick, glossy brushwork in the purple buds rising to the top of the canvas, and the mottled daubs of puce and grey that depict the flowers jostling in the foreground.
At the East Anglian School for Painting and Drawing, which Morris established with Lett (and whose first home at Dedham Lucian Freud is rumoured to have burned down with a careless cigarette), students were encouraged to pay meticulous attention to the materials of paint and canvas, while free reign was given over subject matter. Morris expert Richard Morphet noted that the painter shared with Freud, “a tendency to unusual scrutiny of the motif, frequently involving its being viewed exceptionally close”.
“The Black Tulip” (1930s)
The title of this painting picks out one element of a varied composition, selecting it as the protagonist of the painting – a trick Morris often deployed. The black tulip’s arrow-straight stem splits the picture plane in two: a dramatic enactment of the flower’s burst toward daylight, leaving mottled purple irises and pink tulips in its wake. Fellow artist-gardener John Morley, a frequent visitor to Benton End, recalled that “Cedric was not particularly interested in arranging plants, only placing them where they grew happily”. He painted, too, with an organic sensibility, making neither preliminary drawings nor corrections.
“Iris Seedlings” (1943)
The young flowers rising from this golden jug are ancestors of the species that would become famous; you can pick out the pale pink irises, tinged with darker purple that were to be Morris’s signature. Beyond the play of petals, the painting offers a glimpse of the Suffolk landscape, giving it a remarkable double-aspect that makes the space seem at once to expand and contract, such that the flowers start to pulse. Morris did not paint en plein-air; he relied on cut blooms taken into the studio, and often simply on his deep-rooted memories of the form and character of individual plants.
This painting is an absorbing essay in rhythm. The round forms of the foreground cabbages repeat in the vases and in the rolling hills of the brooding, De Chirico-esque landscape behind, while the serpentine curves of the sprouting butterfly bush and artichoke flowers counteract the stark horizontal that dissects the painting. One of a number of works from private collections that have rarely been seen in public, its placement in the exhibition alongside the Tate’s more famous “Iris Seedlings” offers new scope for assessing the full variety of ways in which Morris composed his plant paintings.
Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman Garden Museum, London until July 22nd. Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall Philip Mould & Company until July 22nd