Friday, November 9, 2012
For lovers of art in East Anglia, Cedric Morris has cast a long and lively – and also a somewhat deceptive – shadow. This celebrated painter and plantsman, who died at the great age of 93 twenty years ago, outlived his friends and contemporaries.
Most especially Lett Haines with whom he had run the bohemian East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing first at Dedham and then (after students Lucian Freud and David Carr accidentally burned it down) at Hadleigh.
Actually, Haines had all but given up his artistic career to run the school and inspire some very individualist painters such as Maggi Hambling, while Morris concentrated on his plants and paints – a man of few words who was followed by disciples who painted rather too much like he did.
When old people die we too often remember them how they were at the end of their long lives, rather than in their younger days which may have been altogether wilder.
So it was with Cedric – or more properly Sir Cedric, the socialist baronet who had travelled far from his Victorian roots in South Wales to cultivate his famous iris beds in South Suffolk.
What on earth linked him with a young man who, in 1930, with a revolver in his pocket and his mind addled by opium, jumped in front of a train at Salisbury station? Visit Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery just now for the brilliant explanation provided by exhibition curator Nathaniel Hepburn.
Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood: Forgotten Friends looks at two kindred artists who in the 1920s were not only great hopes of radical British art but also chums with rare connections to the European avant-garde.
Morris had met Arthur Lett-Haines in London on Armistice Night, 1918, when passions were running high – with theirs among the highest. Lett had soon shed a wife and shortened his name.
The two partners then took off for Cornwall like so many painters before them – and where, as late as 1928, the visiting Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson would be credited with discovering the primitive painter Alfred Wallis, the former mariner now hailed as one of our greatest artists of the 20th century.
Cedric and Lett may well have made that key discovery for modernist artists on a rather earlier visit to St Ives. Anyway, Wood and Nicholson were the first to publicise it and most immediately to claim a link and a debt. By then Morris (and Lett Haines) and Wood were great friends, having coincided in the Paris of the early 1920s when it was the centre of the art world.
They moved in exalted creative circles, mingling with the likes of Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Diaghilev and generally being the toast of gay (in every sense of the word) cafe life in the French capital. They seemed to know everyone and do everything while never forgetting for a moment that they were very serious painters with stupendous ambitions.
In fact Kit Wood went even further than Morris, as he generally did. He sketched with Picasso and made designs for Diaghilev, the great director of the Ballet Russes who also worked with modernist composers such as Stravinsky and Satie on productions which could incite pitched battles at their premieres.
Paris had been the hub of successive progressive art movements, and most importantly of the revolutionary blast of Cubism, and both these young artists – Morris was in truth 12 years older than Wood - sought a more naive painterly style in contrast to the prevailing masters of European modernism.
Similarly drawn to the sea, their visits to the coast of Brittany resulted in pictures of workaday villages, with the boats of fishermen whose wives, dressed in traditional costumes, waited on beaches for their safe return – below churchyards filled with the graves of those who never made it home.
They were in nearly at the end of a very distinctive Celtic culture, with two branches in Brittany and Cornwall. Indeed, many of the Breton fishing boats painted by Kit Wood also sailed into Cornish harbours.
Back in England they both became members of the radical 7&5 Society – one of the leading hot-beds of radical art in the inter-war era. The greatest ruction in the ranks was caused by the most revolutionary arrival of all: abstractionism. The chief cadre for the shining new cause was to be Ben Nicholson – but this after Kit Wood’s suicide at the age of 29 at the start of the 1930s.
What direction might Wood’s art have taken had he survived his youth and been spared the lethal persecution mania of the drug addict? Impossible to tell, but certainly his forgotten friend Cedric Morris stayed true to first principles and continued to depict the recognisable world of land and seascapes, birds, plants and people in a semi-naive and thickly-painted style perfected in the 1920s.
And here the title of the Norwich Castle show is also apt for, from 1930, Cedric Morris moved from bright and brilliant young thing in the creative cosmos of London and Paris to a life beyond the spotlight in Suffolk.
He was a good painter and grand gardener simply eclipsed by new trends in metropolitan modernism.
But the singular achievement of a man born as far back as 1889 is now beyond the fads and fashions of the art world – as can be seen in a group of works lately acquired by Norwich Castle from the artist’s estate. That coup for East Anglian culture helped to prompt this exhibition.
■ Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood: Forgotten Friends is at Norwich Castle Museum until December 31 together with the latest Norwich Castle Open Art show, Mon-Sat 10am-4.30pm, Sun 1pm-4.30pm, special exhibition admission £3.50 (£3 cons), £2.60 children, under-4s free, 01603 495897, www. museums.norfolk.gov.uk