SIR CEDRIC MORRIS – ARTIST AND IRIS BREEDER
by Sarah Cook
Sir Cedric Morris’s legacy to future generations is not only his influence as an artist. His pictures are highly acclaimed, probably the best known being Iris Seedlings, in the Tate Britain. With his partner, Arthur Lett-Haines, he ran the East Anglian Art School, first at Dedham and then from 1940 at Benton End, near Hadleigh, where their students included Lucian Freud and Maggie Hambling. But Morris also created a garden at Benton End. He was a huge influence on the horticultural world; his influence on Beth Chatto has been well recorded. He was a plantsman, plant collector and gardener, but, for me, the tall bearded irises he bred are his most fascinating horticultural legacy.
Having been born and brought up in Hadleigh I visited Morris’s garden as a young girl, in the late 1950s. Six years ago I returned to Suffolk, not far from Hadleigh and Benton End. With a new garden to fill and a certain amount of time available for research I decided to try and collect as many as possible of his surviving iris introductions. My first task was to discover exactly what I was looking for.
Much of my early research was carried out in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, which contains all the books and journals and plant catalogues one could need to make a start. Morris put the prefix ‘Benton’ to the names of the majority of his irises, and these are therefore easy to find in books and catalogues, but, having already grown his irises ‘Craithie’ and ‘Edward of Windsor’, I knew that several did not have this identifying prefix. The American Iris Society (AIS) is the registration authority for iris cultivars and I needed to search their registers, as well as catalogues, to be sure I did not miss any Morris cultivars. He registered 45 cultivars with the AIS between 1945 and 1961, of which a dozen do not have the Benton prefix. Another 45 named irises are described in books, journals (notably British Iris Society Yearbooks) and correspondence, as well as the sale catalogues of iris nurseries, particularly Wallace and Orpington, both of whom were selling his irises from 1945 until the mid 1970s. These sources have given me descriptions for nearly all the 90 named irises and pictures of a few; black and white, but useful for the shape and colour pattern. With all this information I thought the process of identifying and collecting should be fairly straightforward.
This has not been the case. Morris, who began breeding in the early 1930s, was raising upwards of 1,000 seedlings every year. The best he named, but, in common with every other breeder, he would have destroyed many plants which did not reach exacting standards of health, form and colouring. Apparently he grew on his ‘second division’ irises – good, but not quite good enough to distribute through commercial nurseries – and these he generously sold at garden openings in aid of the Red Cross, or gave away to friends, in addition to giving surplus rhizomes from the parent plants he was using in his breeding programme to be bred by both British and Americans. Many of these have been passed on to me, in turn, by visitors to Benton End over the years. I am pleased to have them, but should I keep unnamed seedlings? And do I need to collect the parents to Morris’s irises? It is certainly interesting to see what Morris was growing at Benton End, but they are taking up an ever-increasing area of our garden (much to my husband’s horror! – vying with the vegetables, but very lovely when they are all in flower).
Despite the difficulties I am pretty confident I have found at least 20 named Morris introductions, with good provenance. The easiest of his irises to obtain were those which are now, or have recently been, listed in the RHS Plant Finder1, six in all. Of these, ‘Benton Cordelia’ and ‘Benton Nigel’ are the easiest to verify as they both received the Award of Merit; accurate descriptions with colour chart numbers are recorded in the RHS Proceedings. Two others, ‘B. Primrose’ and ‘B. Ankaret’, were grown in the iris beds at Kew, and then at Cambridge Botanic Gardens, who generously gave me rhizomes. Others, including ‘B. Bluejohn’, ‘B. Daphne’ and ‘B. Pearl’, have seemingly travelled the world together, and are still growing in Switzerland, the Czech Republic and in America, but apparently not in Britain, so thank goodness for European botanic gardens that retain collections of cultivars, and are generous enough to give away rhizomes to heritage collections.
National Collection status, achieved in 2006, was a real benefit when requesting irises from these sources. Listing on the Plant Heritage website also brought rapid rewards, and truly international collaboration resulted in the discovery of the correct name for one of my favourites in the collection. It had been given to me by two different friends of Morris, both of whom were sure it was a named plant. A contact in New Zealand put me in touch with the Historic Iris Preservation Society2. They allowed me free access to their picture library of historic irises, which contained a picture of one of Morris’s irises from the catalogue of the Rainbow Iris Nursery in California. The Lindley Library had a copy of this catalogue, and in it I found a picture of ‘Benton Olive’. The case was closed a few months later when Audrey Tyerman found the same name on a list of the irises she had bought in 1972.
Library and archive research into these irises has become an obsession. A much healthier aspect of the collection is the wonderful people I have met. And my knowledge has been greatly increased by a number of Morris’s horticultural friends who live in the area and have given me access to letters and photographs. They have been extremely generous with their time, knowledge and, best of all, their memories. I have learnt, among much else, that ‘Benton Stella’ was named for Stella Gwynne, mother of the cookery writer, Elizabeth David3, and ‘Benton Rubeo’ for the macaw that she bought from a Jamaican sailor and gave to Morris. The names Menace and Baggage originally belonged to cats; I have ‘Benton Menace’ in the collection, but would dearly love to find ‘Rubeo’ and ‘Baggage’!
I have said very little about the irises themselves. What are they like? I am sure I am biased but most importantly, from the point of view of the collection, the irises are good garden plants. As a plantsman, Morris bred them with good form and structure, elegance and freedom from disease; as an artist he bred them to appeal to his painterly eye, with unusual colours and markings. His best, ‘Benton Cordelia’, won the Dykes Medal in 1955, awarded by the AIS. They are extremely varied, encompassing every colour and type. There is the long line of pinks, starting with ‘Edward Windsor’, then ‘Strathmore’, admired by the Queen Mother at Chelsea 1948, who graciously allowed him to use the name of her home for the flower, and finally ‘Clasmont’, the last iris he registered, in1960. One of his earliest interests was in plicatas, succeeding in breeding good yellows, pinks and mauves (‘Benton Lorna’). In addition to these there are bicolours and selfs, ranging from whites (‘Benton Pearl’) through yellows blues and purples (‘Benton Menace’).
So what of the future? I am hoping Benton Stella may survive Wootton Manor, Sussex, where Stella Gwynne lived, and I am desperate to find ‘Rubeo’ the macaw. I am also hoping that one of the members of the Essex Gardens Trust may be able to help. Someone may know of the whereabouts of other Morris irises, or of any that came from Benton End. Did any of you visit Benton End? If so, do you have memories of the irises or, better still, pictures of them? If anyone thinks they can help in my quest, or would like to visit on the collection’s open day, please contact me.
When I started my collection I was fairly certain that I would end up with some fine, worthy plants for my garden. What I had not realised was the endless interest I have had from reading the descriptions, meeting artist and gardening friends, and getting to know the intricate details of these lovely irises. It is not just a plant collection but a fascinating story, a small part of our heritage which encompasses history, plants, art, and people.
2.An American organisation dedicated to collecting and identifying irises bred before 1980: http:// www.hips-roots.com
3.Tony Venison has given me much information, which can be found in three articles he has written for Hortus, Nos 78, 82 and 91.