This spring I sat with Sir Cedric Morris under the purple blossoming branches of his Judas tree and I talked to him about his flower painting.

'Why do you want to talk about flower painting? I paint infinitely more landscapes’, he said. I know of course that this is true, but so many of his English landscapes are rich with foliage that one tends to associate him always with flowers.

We sat gazing in the zizzing Whitsun sunlight across the sea of spiking buds or the already swelling pods of earlier flowers to the enclaves of tall rare lilies rising from families of even less familiar plants. It is a walled garden, the old brick as lovely in its age as the beautiful fifteenth - century house it encloses: Benton End, home of the East Anglian School of Painting.

Cedric is as world famous a gardener as he is a painter. He had, still has, a particular passion for irises and for many years bred new colours and forms into this lovely plant until the horticultural mercenaries began to do the same, but he is still as involved with gardening as he is with painting, seasonally combining both obsessions. In the winter when the garden is dormant he migrates to warmer places, Portugal, St.. Helena, parts of Africa or Mexico where he has been inspired to paint very many of his most powerful, literal yet poetic undulating landscapes. Abroad he collects rare plants which he brings back to his secluded East Anglian garden, and as they come to flower here in due course, he very often paints them.
 


Irises. This was painted in the 30s as a record, really, of seedling irises which he bred that year; colours are mainly blues, purples and whites. (This image was presented across two pages of the magazine - hence the crease in the centre)


He spends the major part of his spring and summer life maintaining the three and a half acres almost single handed, not aiming to grow flowers as showy colour, not for a minute seeking to create any visual effect, but because he has a passion and compulsion to experiment with habitat, to understand the ecology of each plant.

'When did you first become interested in flowers?' I asked. 'Well', he sucked at his pipe, leaning back in his deck chair and giggled a little as memory moved. He has this chuckling giggle: an addendum to his ready and articulate sense of humour, and he speaks with a very gentle voice, I suppose the constant proximity of growing things and garden birds makes manners gentle as it sharpens observation. 'Well, I suppose I've always loved flowers. My mother once told me that when I was a screaming brat, in my pram, defying comfort, she found that if she gave me a flower I would hold it carefully in my hand and keep quiet for hours!'

Sir Cedric is still a naturalist at 80. I have often found him sitting quietly on a path in the garden (though I must admit he is more frequently battling with hoe or fork or scythe) resting, looking, watching, being with his flowers. He is devoid of sentimentality and threw out my suggestion that he might 'commune' with the plants, but there is a quality of 'soul' (he chuckles again) in many of his flower pictures where he portrays them in subtle relation to sky or mountain or against a strange invasive light. Despite his apparent tenderness he has a merciless accuracy in his portrayal of nature; this is the attitude of nature itself, he explains, and his flower or bird pictures have this hard yet sensitive surety, an uncompromising firmness of line, clarity of colour, a deliberate faithfulness that is never photographic.

 


Study of succulents, a study made in pale greys, greens, soft subtle colours; painted in the 1940s in the autumn


In the same way that he has never been interested in formal groupings in his garden, so he has never painted pretty, realistic arrangements. He paints them with a certain deliberate flatness without any loss of form, individually, separately, yet achieving a synthesis of colour, line, shape and lyrical rhythm. His earlier canvases were so richly tapestried in colour, so exuberant and brilliant that they almost appear to be embroidered with flowers but latterly the flower heads within the confines of the four sides of his canvases are very carefully placed in relation to one another and their background, though there has been no radical change in his techniques for the past forty years.

He never uses any other medium than oils and paints very evenly with a fairly thick , consistent texture, the same for light or dark tones, mixing every subtle nuance of colour exactly on his palette before applying it with bold, even brushstrokes beginning from the top. This is how he works; from top to bottom of his canvas, beginning in a straight horizontal way from the upper edge he gradually work s down filling in sky or mountain, tendril or petal or leaf. Just as it comes into the working strata it's rather like pulling down a blind. This way, he says, you can exactly relate the background and foreground and keep the interrelating shapes as you want them. He never overworks any part off it, never over-paints. When it is finished it is there forever. Thus it retains the original crisp freshness, the enamel-like purity of colour with never a blurred line, never a doubting statement.



Go She Must ... The Cuckoo, August Blooming Flowers. Painted in the 30s


He told me that he has always been interested in breeding, in the points of things, their stance. As a small boy, in Wales, he and his sister would always visit the local country shows and before the judgements were made they made lists of their own winners, animal or agricultural, and they were invariably right. 'It was the poise and balance we looked for', he said, 'and it is these qualities in a flower I admire, the thrust of its growth, the basic form of it'. He hates fuzzy, double flowers; clever hybrids that have lost the essential simplicities are anathema to him.

I asked whether he had ever felt the need to draw flowers, did not line appeal as much as colour? "Well I did years ago. When I lived in Paris I couldn't bear it for more than a few days on end, then I'd get away into the country and simply draw. But now it is colour, what is a flower without its colour…’
'But surely you draw them first. On your canvases, before you start painting?' 'Never', he said. 'I never draw. I know exactly what I want to do before I start. It's all planned beforehand, all worked out: every position of every flower, every shape, and every colour. It's all done, complete, in my head, before I begin'.

He likes painting in the garden, dispensing with easel and stool, just propping his canvas against his knee as he squats on the path and he suggested I photograph him that way, 'because so few people could bear to do it like that', he giggled. Or maybe when he has waited for a special plant to bloom he picks the individual flower and takes it into the studio where he paints it as already designed to take its place in the composition. He can take four or five days of constant work to finish one of his pictures or anything up to two or three weeks depending on the size of his canvas or the complexity of his plan.


This is a study in reds, painted in the 60s. Most of his paintings are colour experiments. He paints more in the autumn because there is less urgency in the garden and it is the time just before he packs to go abroad


Sir Cedric, who is Welsh, has always been closely associated with his country, held a retrospective exhibition of his work in Cardiff in 1968, and this year a one man show at the Upper Grosvenor Galleries. For thirty years he has been the Principal and is the co-founder of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing with Arthur Lett-Haines. This school still thrives during the summer months when students come from all over the world to work in that rare and beautiful environment.


Cedric Morris was born in Sketty, Glamorgan in 1889. He painted in Paris, the Dordogne, Italy, and North Africa, in the 20’s. He was elected to the London Group. Had a series of one-man shows in London in the 30s; in 1936 he agreed to become Principal of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Dedham. Essex, and in 1946 founded the Colchester Art Society. He was a lecturer in design at Royal College of Art from 1950-53. Retrospective exhibitions were held in Cardiff in 1968 and London in 1970.


This feature is taken from the Winter 1970 issue of Leisure Painter which cost 3/6, or 18p in the newly decimalised currency.

 

The issue also featured:

  • Painting in The Yorkshire Dales
  • Carlisle Art Group
  • Painting activities for winter
  • Isms of modern art
  • Leisure sculptor - Anthony Constantine Smith
  • Trees and water for beginners
  • Frank Brangwyn
  • A personal experience of painting holidays by Kim Hardie
  • Keeping you in the picture - the forerunner of your month starts here

Watch this video of ‘Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall’, an exhibition at Philip Mould & Company which ran from18 April – 15 July 2018.