It was where many of the best things in life were brought together: art, food, wine, sex, the natural environment. And it had a hand in creating some of the UK’s most highly regarded postwar painters, including Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling.
Benton End was an extraordinary place where aspiring artists lived and studied under the tutelage of Cedric Morris and his lover Arthur Lett-Haines. Now it is being celebrated in an exhibition that for the first time brings together the alumni of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing.
As well as Freud and Hambling, students included Frances Hodgkins, Valerie Thornton, David Carr, Lucy Harwood and Richard Chopping. They lived and worked at the pink 16th century farmhouse near Hadleigh, Suffolk, where there was as much emphasis on gardening and cooking as there was on art.
Several works lent to the Firstsite gallery in Colchester have not been seen in public before. They include The Woodpeckers, a painting by Morris of two red-headed birds astride branches against a wintry backdrop, which for decades has been hanging in a private home, slowly cracking and discolouring with age.
Morris and Lett, as he was known, “taught in a very hands-off way,” said Ben Coode-Adams, an Essex artist and chair of the Victor Batte-Lay Foundation, an art collection with a focus on East Anglia. “It was more about working together and, although they were clearly in a leadership role, they weren’t dictatorial. It was really about just doing the work. They were interested in people who buckled down.”
Hambling, who began studying at Benton End while still at school, said the farmhouse was “really where life began”. In an interview in 2017, she said: “Part of the attraction for me aged 15 was that it was called the artists’ house and notorious for every vice under the sun.”
Benton End was considered very louche, said Coode-Adams. “There were always a lot of people, a lot of drinking, always very good food. It was quite extreme partying for the time.” The house was “notoriously filthy – no one ever cleared up”, and there was plenty of sexual activity, with Lett-Haines taking a series of female lovers alongside his lifelong relationship with Morris.
The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing was established by the couple in 1937, initially in Dedham, Essex. Sixty students enrolled within nine months. After the Dedham house burned down – apparently as a result of a cigarette discarded by Freud – the school was re-established at Benton End, where it continued for 40 years.
There Morris devoted as much time to horticulture as he did art, although the two often overlapped when he painted plants and flowers. Students were also encouraged to paint in Benton End’s extensive gardens.
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 iris, travelling frequently to the Mediterranean and North Africa to find species to transport back to Suffolk. He also bred birds.
Lett-Haines was uninterested in the garden, but passionate about food and cooking. Hambling recalled him serving couscous, which was almost unheard of in England in the early postwar years.
His dishes, served to the artists’ community twice a day, included other foods that were unusual at the time, including garlic, olives, and aubergines grown in the garden. Copious amounts of red wine accompanied meals.
Benton End had a certain “vibe”, said Stuart Tulloch, head of programme at Firstsite. “This was a cool place. It was liberal and open.”
Although it produced well-known artists, there were others who studied at the school that “have never had that recognition”. The exhibition was “lifting a stone and finding teeming life underneath it”.
In keeping with the Benton End ethos, the exhibition rooms are dotted with easels and paints to encourage visitors to create their own works, which will then be hung on the walls next to the main displays. Firstsite is also running workshops on wellbeing, cooking and gardening alongside the exhibition to reflect the character of the school.
Life with Art “brings together a stunning selection of paintings, sculptures, etchings and drawings showcasing the amazing artists and creative talent which emanates from East Anglia,” said Sally Shaw, director of Firstsite. The aim was to “evoke a real sense of Benton End”.
The influence of the school had been far-reaching, she said. “Morris was the only person of his generation to achieve national status as both an artist and a 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 bought by the Pinchbeck trust. It plans to reopen the house and gardens as a centre for art and horticulture 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.