Like most artists from the 20th century British avant-garde, Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982) has had his fashionable ups and downs but he is currently riding the crest of a wave.
In 2018 – three decades on since the last museum exhibition of Morris – the artist was the subject of two London shows (Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman at the Garden Museum in Lambeth and Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall at the Philip Mould & Company gallery) and a third in Suffolk at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, marking a bequest of 100 Morris works.
Prices in the auction room have strengthened. In April 2016 the artist’s record was set at £49,000 for a 1934 oil at Sworders.
That price has subsequently been bettered on several occasions. Chichester saleroom Henry Adams completed a hat-trick of high prices for Morris on January 17 when Flowers and Butterflies was hammered down at £140,000 (plus 20% buyer’s premium). The record price was just over the Aus$226,000 (£138,000) achieved in August 2017 when July Flowers and Wood Warblers (1929) sold at Menzies in Melbourne, Australia.
A rediscovered painting by Morris will be offered at auction on October 22 – its sale helping to preserve the 16th century home that gave rise to the influential East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing.
Foxgloves, the quintessential Morris still life depicting blooms of pink and purple foxgloves and other English garden flowers, comes for sale at Sworders’ auction of Modern British and 20th Century Art on October 22 with an estimate of £30,000-50,000.
The seller plans to give part of the proceeds to the Benton End House and Garden Trust. The newly formed charity intends to turn Morris’ former home, a rambling £1.3m ‘Suffolk pink’ farmhouse with Tudor origins on the outskirts of Hadleigh, as a centre for artistic and horticultural education.
The project is headed by Bridget Pinchbeck who first became involved after attending a lecture about Morris given by Philip Mould at the Garden Museum. It was later in conversation with Mould (who has also joined the charity’s Board of Trustees) that she learned Benton End was up for sale.
Dated 1932, Foxgloves was painted just three years after Morris and his lifelong partner, Arthur Lett-Haines, chose the country life over a London studio. The couple took the lease on their first Suffolk home (Pound Farm in Higham) in 1929, followed in 1937 by the founding of the avant-garde East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, first in Dedham and then at Benton End House.
The heyday of Benton End was the two decades from 1940, when the art school was at its most active and the three acres of garden at their spectacular best. Morris was unique as both a painter and horticulturalist of equal stature: while painting and teaching he cultivated more than 90 new named varieties of iris (many carrying the prefix Benton).
Both the vendor’s father and grandfather knew the artist and stayed at Benton End. Her father recalled that Morris encouraged him to dig around in the cellars in pursuit of archaeological finds. The picture has been in the family since at least the early 1960s.
Sworders have also been instructed to sell the contents of Hill House in Sudbury on behalf of Tony Venison, for many years the Gardens Editor of Country Life and himself a frequent visitor to Benton End.
His collection includes three later oils by Cedric Morris. Signed and dated 1970, a still life of vases, flowers and a dish of painted eggs – inscribed to the reverse Reserved for Tony Venison £500 – is estimated at £20,000-30,000, while a 1971 depiction of a Turkish village near Izmir that formed part of the Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall exhibition last year, is pitched at £10,000-15,000.
Tony Venison also owned two pencil portraits of Cedric Morris captured by two of his pupils at Benton End, Kathleen Hale (1898-2000) and Joan Warburton (1920-1996). Hale’s portrait, inscribed and dated 1944 and purchased by the vendor at the Redfern Gallery in 2001 (estimate £400-600), is followed by Warburton’s sketch inscribed Cedric, Hadleigh 21.3.43 (estimate £500-700).
Highlights from the sale will be on view at Sworders’ London office (15 Cecil Court, Covent Garden) from October 2-14 with a special London preview evening on October 10.