Benton End: the rebirth of a Suffolk artists' haven

Benton End at Hadleigh,

Benton End at Hadleigh, where artist and plantsman Cedric Morris welcomed some of the most creative minds of his generation. - Credit: EMMA CABIELLES

LINDA DUFFIN meets the people behind a visionary project to revive Benton End, the Hadleigh home of artist-plantsman Cedric Morris and partner Arthur Lett-Haines, who nurtured and inspired some of the 20th century's most creative minds and gardeners

Mention Suffolk artists and many people immediately think of Constable and Gainsborough. And yet in the 1940s and 50s a small part of the county was a Bohemian hotbed for painting and horticulture, instructing and inspiring some of the 20th and 21st centuries' greatest artists and, arguably, launching one of today’s most influential garden design movements.  

Cedric Morris and Lett Haines with Rubio the Macaw.

Cedric Morris and Lett Haines with Rubio the Macaw. - Credit: Tate Archive

Art and gardening were the twin passions of Cedric Morris, who with his partner Arthur Lett-Haines ran the East Anglian School for Painting and Drawing. It drew a startlingly wide range of artists and writers, either as students or friends and visitors. It reads like a roll call of the famous and gifted. Lucian Freud, Maggi Hambling, John Nash and Francis Bacon, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Ronald Blythe, Steven Spender, Elizabeth David and Kathleen Hale were among those attracted by the couple’s generous and free-wheeling approach to life and art. 

The school began in Dedham but the story goes that in 1939 a young Lucian Freud burned it down with a careless cigarette. Faced with a blazing building, Cedric told his students to get out their brushes and set to work painting it. It must have been a memorable scene. They produced some remarkable works but with the art school a smoking ruin, Cedric and Lett had to find somewhere they could both live and work.

It was one of Cedric’s former lovers, the ballet dancer Paul Odo Cross, who came to the rescue. He bought Benton End, a beautiful 16th century house with three acres of gardens on the outskirts of Hadleigh, and in an act of extraordinary generosity gave it to Cedric and Lett. It was to be their home for the rest of their lives. 

Benton End at Hadleigh, home of Cedric Morris and Lett Haines.

Benton End at Hadleigh, home of Cedric Morris and Lett Haines. - Credit: EMMA CABIELLES

Each spring they would throw open the doors and welcome student residents. In the autumn they closed up, Lett would move to a London hotel to put his feet up and Cedric would go abroad on painting holidays. It was while he was travelling, mostly around the Mediterranean, that he indulged his second love, collecting rare species plants and seeds and bringing them home to his Suffolk garden. Later paintings show it as an Arcadian mass of flowers and shrubs but in those early days the focus was on growing food. 

“Cedric and Lett moved here right at the beginning of the Second World War and the garden was turned over to Dig For Victory,” says Benton End research assistant Lucy Skellorn. “But of course Cedric had always travelled to the continent, so he would bring back seeds of yellow peppers or aubergines, growing what were at the time incredibly exotic vegetables. There'd be garlic hanging from the ceiling. People said it was as though you were in another country, almost, when you came here.” 

Benton End Hadleigh

Each spring, Cedric Morris and Lett Haines would throw open the doors of Benton End and welcome student residents. - Credit: EMMA CABIELLES

Part of the garden at Benton End, a haven for artists.

Part of the garden at Benton End, a haven for artists. - Credit: EMMA CABIELLES

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Lett, who subsumed his own artistic career to run the school and free Cedric to paint and garden, did most of the cooking. Students were expected to wash up. “He was a fantastic cook but domestic arrangements weren't a high priority, and quite often you'd go to the sink and there'd be an old pair of pants being used as a dishcloth,” Lucy laughs. “But because of that it was very freeing.

"You'd come here and you could indulge yourself in the art and that was very important. You could do what you liked by day, whether it was to paint in the gardens or elsewhere in the studio, but you would come to the kitchen and commune at mealtimes and everyone said that the conversation and Lett’s incredible cooking was as inspiring as anything else.”  

As a gay couple at a time when homosexuality was illegal, the pair were supportive of people who had been pushed to the fringes of society. It was a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community of its day but also a haven to people like Millie Hayes, a woman Cedric had once painted and who he discovered had spent 20 years in a mental institution simply because she’d suffered from post-natal depression. Cedric and Lett gave her a home as their housekeeper and in Cedric’s will he left her enough money to buy a home of her own. 

Benton End Hadleigh in snow.

After Morris' death in 1982 Benton End was sold and became a private home. - Credit: Matt Collins

Lett died in 1978 and the art school gradually faded away. Cedric lost his sight towards the end of his life, giving up painting and gardening only by feel. He died four years after his partner and in his will appointed a plant executor, fellow gardener Jenny Robinson, asking her to disperse his collection of rare and unusual plants, including the irises he bred. “Jenny then set about putting on these digging parties where she would try and disperse his collection,” says Lucy. “The idea was for the plants to continue but amongst enthusiasts, collectors and botanic gardens, people who would go on and protect them and enjoy them.” 

Benton End was sold and became a private home. Families came and went until a few years ago it went back onto the market. And that’s when it once again became the focus for extraordinary events. The art dealer Philip Mould staged twin exhibitions of Cedric Morris’s work, one at his gallery and one at London’s Garden Museum. He gave a talk and in the audience were art and garden lovers Bridget and Robin Pinchbeck. They fell in love with Cedric’s work, bought a painting and thanks to Mould, discovered the house was up for sale. 

Benton End research assistant Lucy Skellorn

Benton End research assistant Lucy Skellorn says people come to the house and garden and indulge themselves in art. - Credit: EMMA CABIELLES

“I remember thinking wouldn’t it be wonderful if children from Lambeth could go to Suffolk to experience that garden for themselves and likewise children from Suffolk could go to Lambeth too. But I admit I also sat dreaming about setting up an easel there myself with my friends so that we could sit in that garden in the Suffolk light and paint all day long. We took a casual look at its details on the agent’s website but noted, before leaving to go on holiday, that anyway it was under offer.”  

On their return they found the sale had fallen through. They talked to Philip Mould, to the director of the Garden Museum, Christopher Woodward and to the garden designer Arne Maynard and got an enthusiastic response to their idea, as Bridget says, “that it would be a thrilling challenge to return it to being a place where people could go to learn about horticulture and art, cookery and history.” 

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They got permission from the Charities Commission to buy it using their small grant-giving family charity and in a remarkable repeat of Paul Odod Cross’s original gift to Cedric and Lett, they promptly gave it away to the Garden Museum. Although all concerned are cagey about naming prices, Benton End was on the market for £1.3 million. The Pinchbecks only request was that after three years, the Garden Museum pay back £350,000 to their charitable trust so it can replenish its support for other causes, including medical education, and mental health and well-being.   

Garden Museum head gardener Matt Collins spent a year living in a cottage at Benton End

Garden Museum head gardener Matt Collins spent a year living in a cottage at Benton End experiencing all the season's in the garden. - Credit: EMMA CABIELLES

Fritillaria meleagris, one of the plants grown by Cedric Morris which Matt Collins recorded.

Fritillaria meleagris, one of the plants grown by Cedric Morris which Matt Collins recorded. - Credit: Matt Collins

Christopher Woodward says: “I’ve worked with donors for years and this was a gift in a hundred. It’s a bit of a fairy tale and completely from the heart from the Pinchbecks. They just fell in love with Cedric Morris and the whole story. It’s the second time the house has been given as a miraculous gift. Maybe there’s a special charm to Benton End.” 

There must be. The enthusiasm Benton End inspires is infectious. “Cedric was the only person in the 20th century who was equally significant in both gardening and painting,” says Woodward. “Benton End was radical in its approach to people’s lives – the script wasn’t written by their parents or by society. Benton End was about freedom of expression. They didn’t set out to create an artistic movement but they impacted on hundreds of lives.” 

Woodward admits it’s a somewhat controversial theory but he sees Cedric Morris as the forefather of today’s naturalistic garden design, which partners a gardener with the environment and ecology in which his garden is set. Cedric, it should be noted, was an early environmentalist and had strong opinions about farmers spraying the fields with chemicals.

Fritillaria pontica at Benton End -

Fritillaria pontica at Benton End - Cedric Morris was particularly interested in naturalistic gardening. - Credit: Matt Collins

Fritillaria pyreniaca - discovered in the garden by Matt Collins while he was living at Benton End.

Fritillaria pyreniaca - discovered in the garden by Matt Collins while he was living at Benton End. - Credit: Matt Collins

“He was particularly interested in naturalistic gardening and Benton End’s was the first such in Britain,” says Woodward. “He could be compared today Piet Oudolf or Dan Pearson but he was working 50 years ago. He was a mentor of Beth Chatto’s and she said she wouldn’t have become a gardener without Cedric.” Benton End was as influential in its day as Sissinghurst. 

Benton End House and Gardens has been set up as a subsidiary charity to the Garden Museum and the aim is create a place to inspire artists and gardeners with the same freedom of invention as Cedric and Lett in their day.  

“We want to renew the garden, with the emphasis on renew, not recreate,” says Woodward. “We will be looking for a star head gardener to reinvent the garden for modern times. The Garden Museum is the only place dedicated to the art of the garden and we want to create a gallery space at Benton End. We want to create somewhere that’s multi-disciplinary: art and gardening but also literature, food, illustrations and textiles.” 

They are approaching it gently. During lock-down the museum’s head gardener, Matt Collins, spent a year living with his partner and child in a cottage at Benton End. It was a real-life gardener’s diary, 12 months in which to care for the garden and to seek out any remnants of Cedric’s original planting. They were fortunate that intervening owners hadn’t radically transformed the gardens and traces still remained. As Lucy Skellorn says: “It's amazing when you think about it that 40 years has passed and nobody has gone in there and dug everything up or got in a bulldozer.” 

Imperial fritillary

Imperial fritillary - one of the joys for Matt Collins has been finding plants that are clearly depicted in Cedric Morris paintings. - Credit: Matt Collins

Many plants, of course, had been given away in accordance with Cedric’s will, but Matt documented and photographed those that remained, mostly bulbs which had naturalised. “It was a dream thing to do,” he says. “I'm a garden writer as well and write a lot about plants in their native environments, but one of my favourite things is moving through a garden environment, and coming here and finding remnants of a former garden and collection was super exciting.  

“What's been great has been finding plants that are clearly depicted in Cedric Morris paintings. Most exciting for me are lots of interesting species fritillaries. Not just the big imperials which have self-seeded here which he used to cultivate and paint quite often, but Fritillaria pyrenaica, Fritillaria pontica and acmopetala, lots of really cool, interesting plants, really beautiful.” 

These survivors are what Sarah Cook, former head gardener at Sissinghurst, calls Cedric’s Ghosts. Since she retired to Suffolk she’s made it her mission to track down the irises which were given away after his death and her display of Cedric Morris irises was the hit of 2015’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. But it is no easy task. “First of all you have to know what you're looking for, then you have to look for them, make sure you've got the right one and record what you've got. I spent ages first just looking for all the names. 

Sarah Cook, former head gardener at Sissinghurst - now living in Suffolk

Sarah Cook, former head gardener at Sissinghurst - since retiring to Suffolk she has made it her mission to track down the irises which were given away after Cedric Morris' death. - Credit: EMMA CABIELLES

“I've got records of about 96 irises that he bred and named. I've tracked down 25 that I'm pretty certain are correct, because they've got to come to you matching the description and correctly named, then you can be moderately certain that the plant is the right one. If it's got no name I can't include it. I've got quite a lot of what I call Unknown Flying Objects, because people say ‘oh I had this from Cedric Morris’ but they don't know what it is. If it matches a description I might know what it is. But sometimes it turns out not to be a Cedric.”  

Thanks to Sarah, some of Cedric’s irises will return to Benton End. What form the revived gardens will take is still under discussion. Matt Collins says: “We want to retain that sense of coming out into a garden that you want to paint, and exploring still - even if they're newly put in plants - those plants within the context of this amazing garden. We're being deliberately vague about it because we quite honestly haven't decided and we're being very careful with how we approach it. We don't want to lose anything that's still precious in the ground.  

“It's a tricky remit. What we want to do is to retain the essence and the spirit of Benton End as it was in that amazing, glorious mid-century period but most likely do something new with it as well. All gardens have to move on and evolve and change and they're impossible to to recreate anyway. 

“It needs to be a place of education, it needs to be a place open to a very wide demographic, it needs to do something, to support something. It can't just be a picture. What was so brilliant about Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines was their capacity to be encouraging and welcoming for a younger generation and often for slightly outcast people. Central in how we go forward is catering for a really wide, diverse group of people, meeting the educational and cultural needs of those in the area and beyond and providing a place that's exciting and encouraging and also educational and inspiring.” 

Hesperis thriving at Benton End, Hadleigh.

Hesperis thriving at Benton End. Researcher Lucy Skellorn says it's amazing that 40 years has passed and nobody has dug everything up or got in a bulldozer. - Credit: Matt Collins

That’s a view endorsed by Benton End’s interim gardener, Sam Woodward, a market gardener in Hadleigh. “You've got to garden in the same kind of style and keep the spirit but we're 40 years on now. The place has got to be accessible for wheelchairs, we've got to have parking. Gardens evolve, we've had global warming, certain varieties have dwindled off, things have gone out of fashion, things have come in. You've got to change with the times. Cedric never stopped and said 'it's finished now'. You have constantly keep changing.” 

He believes a revived Benton End will be good for the area. “Cedric Morris was such a big thing in Hadleigh. It will be be a statement, something for Hadleigh to shout about.” Bridget Pinchbeck agrees but goes further. “It’s got to be for Hadleigh, it’s got to be for Suffolk, but it has to be for the wider community too, in the spirit of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, a place of inclusivity.” 

And in practical terms, that’s a financial necessity. Benton End’s restoration will be financed by grants and donations and organisations like the Heritage Fund may require a wide remit. The project, which includes transforming the house itself back to its 1950s heyday, is expected to take at least five years. 

But Christopher Woodward is confident the support will be there and says: “We’ve just been given the funding to appoint a director. We hope next year to begin a series of residencies. They could be about anything that inspired Cedric, from gardening to how to create a great Martini!” I think we can all drink to that.

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