Early in 1943, Lucian Freud wrote to a woman friend describing the fallout from his most recent visit to Benton End. “Cedric wrote a letter to my mother asking her to persuade me not to come down again as I was too destructive and unscrupulous.” Freud did not seem unduly put out by this rejection from the man who, more than anyone else, could have claimed to be his artistic mentor. Nonetheless, being barred from Benton End must have been like being barred from the Garden of Eden – if a rustic and distinctly Bohemian version.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, this rambling 16th-century house in Suffolk became a place of experimentation in matters artistic, horticultural, gastronomic and sexual. Presided over by the artist-gardner Cedric Morris and his partner Arthur Lett-Haines, its atmosphere, according to the writer Ronald Blythe, was “robust and coarse and exquisite and tentative all at once. Rough and ready and fine mannered. And also faintly dangerous”.
Benton End was also the HQ of the East Anglian School of Painting and Design. Founded in Dedham, Essex, in 1937 by Morris and Lett-Haines (always known as “Lett”), besides Freud, its students included notable artists such as Maggi Hambling, David Carr, Lucy Harwood, Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller. An exhibition of their work is to open at Firstsite in Colchester, while the Suffolk house and grounds have been bequeathed to the Garden Museum.
Morris was as renowned a gardener as he was as a painter. For him, the two went together: plants were the subjects of many of his pictures, while in the grounds of Benton End he bred some 90 new varieties of Iris, among them “Benton Menace”, named for his cat. Vita Sackville-West grew his irises at Sissinghurst.
For his part, Lett disdained the garden. His domains were the school, which he administered, and the kitchen. By all accounts, he was a remarkable cook, making use of then exotic vegetables grown on the spot, such as peppers, garlic and aubergines. Some of his menus from the early 1950s include dishes that must have seemed outlandish at the time: Greek olives with smoked eel on croutons; gigot d’Agneau with guava jelly.
As Lett cooked, according to Jon Lys Turner, biographer of Wirth-Miller and Chopping, he swore and spat in the fire. That same edge featured in his relationship with Morris. Together from shortly after they met in 1918, until Lett’s death 60 years later, they were nevertheless “so different in temperament that it seemed impossible that they should live together in the same house,” observed artist Glyn Morgan. Their habits were also unalike. “Morris would get up at 6am to weed his iris beds, and Haines got up and had a cocktail in a darkened room at noon,” recalled the painter Christopher Neve. And, while Freud remembered Morris as “very, very queer. He had women friends, but I think he felt somehow the presence of women wasn’t really linked to pleasure”, Lett, who had previously been married, had flings with women.
Whatever Morris’s feelings, one of the striking aspects of the school, especially for its period, was the number of female students who were enrolled, along with the even-handedness with which they were treated. Maggi Hambling noted that “it was never any kind of disadvantage if one happened to be a woman”.
The teaching was also ahead of its time. It was based on the French cours libre, or free course. This meant “that the student should develop his own technique and procedure with only the benefit of encouragement by, and experience of, instructors”, Lett wrote. Morgan later described beginning a picture, then, after a while, “Cedric would amble up, his hands earthy, filling a foul old pipe from a battered ivory tobacco box.” His comments were confined to “colour, balance and other basic formal qualities of the painting, so that while you wondered why you had not seen the solution before... the work remained your picture”. It seems to have worked spectacularly with Freud, who became one of the towering figures of late 20th and 21st-century art. But if the school was the making of him, he came close to bringing it to a premature close. Benton End was actually the second location of the school. The first, at Dedham, had been gutted by a fire in July 1939 that Freud, who had been smoking at his easel the evening before, always believed was his fault, even if the police overlooked the whole thing and blamed a fuse, he later recalled.
Morris and Lett never mentioned the conflagration to Freud (there was more fuss about his later setting fire to his bed). And perhaps it all turned out for the best, since the fire precipitated the move to Benton End, where the pair stayed for almost 40 years: painting, cooking, quarrelling, gardening, teaching and creating an ambience unique in 20th-century British life.
Life with Art is at Firstsite, Colchester, from Dec 10 until April 18; firstsite.uk