The artist Cedric Morris (1889-1982) is in the news at the moment, with 3 exhibitions of his paintings (two in London and one in Sudbury) showing his beautiful and dramatic landscapes, portraits and flower paintings. He founded the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Suffolk (latterly at Benton End just outside Hadleigh), teaching such luminaries as Lucien Freud and Maggie Hambling, and was a founding member of the Colchester Art Society. But he was also a great gardener and plantsman, specialising in the breeding of bearded iris. He grew about 1000 iris seedlings a year, the many rejects ending up either for sale in aid of The Red Cross or on the compost heap; but even so, he introduced around 90 new varieties. With his artist’s eye he selected beautifully shaded and painterly colours – including the first pink break – and flowers with an elegance of form so often absent in the newer varieties.
Most of his introductions were prefixed by the name of Benton (although not all, some were named after royal family connections such as Edward of Windsor and Crathie), with a second name often for friends and even pets: B. Menace and B. Baggage for his cats, and B. Rubeo for his macaw. B. Stella was named for the mother of the cookery writer Elizabeth David (who was a frequent visitor at Benton End where the parties and food were reputed to be unforgettable). Constance Spry was also a frequent visitor and protégé, and inspired by Cedric’s plantings of cardoons, alliums, ornamental rhubarb and alchemilla she would take armfuls back to London to use in her flower arrangements to great acclaim.
Cedric also inspired and influenced the late Beth Chatto, and he became her lifelong friend and mentor. That inspiration can be seen in photos of the gardens at Benton End which strikingly preview the later gravel garden at Elmstead Market. Beth said that ‘I taught myself to propagate plants from the precious screws of paper full of seed, berries or cuttings I have been given by Cedric’. When Beth first met Cedric she was in the company of family friend Nigel Scott, who later moved into Cedric’s extended household, and who is now remembered in Iris Benton Nigel, a spectacular flower with blue standards and inky purple falls with a paler margin. This iris is a classic and beautiful addition to the garden with a story of its own to tell.