The Suffolk artist and his beautiful floral legacy
- Credit: Woottens of Wenhaston
East Anglian Treasures: Ian Collins explores the links between a beautiful flower, a painter and a popular Suffolk day out.
Wander along a certain lane from the A12 to Wenhaston, near Halesworth, from late May to early June, and a spectacle like a medieval tournament will suddenly rise before you.
Arrayed in fields, above lance-like leaves, are the huge heads of bearded irises courtesy of Woottens nursery. Small wonder these gaudy banners are related to a plant called the flag.
Held high like sceptres or armorial standards, they outshine iris pseudacorus, which came to symbolise knightly perfection around the time a fleur-de-lys motif was turned into plumes for the Prince of Wales insignia.
The sea of bright colour has lately crossed oceans thanks to the newest wave of plant breeding from
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America to Australia. But the seeds of East Anglia's iris passion were nurtured in Suffolk – just as pollen was delicately brushed from anther to stigma – by painter-plantsman Sir Cedric Morris.
The Bohemian baronet began to breed irises in 1936, a year before he and (Arthur) Lett Haines founded the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing just across the county border at Dedham.
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Having met on Armistice Night, and graduated to East Anglia via Cornwall, Paris and London, the (frequently sparring) partners were then living in a Stour Valley farmhouse called The Pound, at Heigham.
They were already notorious for wild parties in which painted guests might dance through the garden serenaded by peacock, cockatoo, mackaw and tree frogs.
When the Dedham premises burned down – allegedly due to cigarettes discarded by students David Carr and Lucian Freud – home and school were relocated to Benton End, a rambling house with a three-acre garden on the edge of Hadleigh.There, from 1940 until his death, aged 92, more than four decades later, Morris created a magnificent nursery augmented by seeds, berries and cuttings collected on winter travels through warmer climes.
Although he was formally principal of the art school into the 1960s, the practical work was done by Lett.
The quiet figure of the Welsh-born socialist baronet was principally to be found painting and planting in the garden. Having been a portraitist of 'shrieking likenesses' he now depicted beloved plants in vivid and vigorous oils – bearded irises being afforded the largest and most alarming personalities.
Favourite students gained pet names (Margaret 'Maggi' Hambling, Kathleen 'Mog' Hale) and dozens more were honoured in iris introductions all bearing the prefix Benton. The tally included the first pure pink – Iris Benton Strathmore, after the home of the then Queen, who admired it on a Gold Medal stand at Chelsea in 1948.
Then came a near black, seven ice-blues and Iris Benton Cordelia – a milky-mauve petal with an orange beard, a sensation in 1953. It recalled the wife of sculptor Frank Dobson, whose aptly-named sister, Mary Jewels, learned her bright painting style from Morris.
Iris Benton Stella saluted the mother of cookery writer Elizabeth David, Iris Benton Duff the Lady Duff
Twysden who became Brett Ashley in Ernest Hemingway's novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. Then there were Bentons Damozel, Ophelia and Fandango, Nigel, Daphne and Orlando – the latter, a peach pink with orange beard, after the marmalade cat in Hale's children's stories.
Other hallmark plants at Benton End included hellebores, alliums, euphorbias, fritillaries and a gorgeous pink Oriental poppy now known as Papaver orientale Cedric Morris.
Visiting Benton End from the 1950s, Beth Chatto launched her nursery gardens a decade later with many gifts from the master.
Woottens of Wenhaston (01502 478258, www.woottensplants.com). The two-acre bearded iris field is open daily, from today until June 4. But do visit the web site before travelling, as the fields are very susceptible to weather conditions, and opening times are sometimes amended. Donations to the National Gardens Scheme charities.
Beth Chatto Gardens and Nursery (01206 822007; www.bethchatto.co.uk) are at Elmstead Market, near Colchester.