Covid precautions and then Covid itself prevented me from getting to the ‘Life with Art: Benton End and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing’ exhibition at Firstsite Gallery in Colchester until its final week. But it was worth it. I am sure there will be much more about Benton End in the future, as the original farmhouse (including its three-acre walled garden) in Hadleigh on the Essex/Suffolk border has been bought by the Pinchbeck Foundation, and the foundation are now working with London’s Garden Museum to renew it as a meeting place for artists and gardeners and others drawn to the synergy between the two. It was after all Cedric Morris, the man who created the art school, who insisted on describinghimself as an ‘artist and plantsman’.
Benton End was not the first iteration of the bohemian, artistic enclave. In 1937 Morris and his life partner Lett Haines had opened the school in Dedham in Essex, but that burnt down in a fire in 1939. The entourage – no longer including Lucien Freud – moved across the River Stour to Hadleigh. In the Firstsite exhibition there are two vivid paintings of the burnt-out wreckage of the Dedham buildings, one by David Carr, the other by Cedric Morris. Yet as a marvellous ‘Spider Map’ drawn specially for the exhibition by Melvyn King clearly shows, the Dedham and Benton End settlements were only a small part of an extensive network of artistic, religious and political gatherings and communities across East Anglia in the first half of the twentieth century. Looking back, it was a time of enormous imaginative ferment, much of which was a profound reaction to the catastrophe of the First World War and a longing for a more pastoral way of life – and art and music.
‘Frating Barn’ by Roderic Barrett, 1943
This is the theme of a talk I’ll be giving at the Garden Museum on Tuesday, 10 May, 2022, details below. I’ll be making the case for the inclusion of the Frating Hall Farm communityinto this rich constellation. In addition to its agricultural and pacifist ambitions, it was also an important gathering place for artists, as well as writers and musicians. What many people forget that is that members of the Frating Hall Farm community – which had emerged from The Adelphi Centre in Langham – had already established connections with Cedric Morris when he was at Dedham. People forget too that the next door to the Adelphi Centre was the farm of the Jewish chronicler of East Anglian folklore, S.L.Bensusan, whose sister Esther hadmarried Lucien Pissarro, who also lived and painted there. Artists such as Roderic Barrett and John Vostatek both worked and painted as part of the Frating community.
At some point, and most probably on a number of occasions, the paths of Cedric Morris, Lett Haines, John Nash, John Middleton Murry, Vera Brittain, Lucien Pissarro, Imogen Holst, Roderic Barrett, Jack Common, George Orwell, Ronald Blythe, Beth Chatto and Shirley Williams, Maggi Hambling, and many others, crossed, supporting and taking strength from the energy and work of each other. London was still, for a lot of the time, even then, another country.
Under East Anglian Skies: the back-to-the land movement amongst artists and intellectuals between the wars
A talk by writer and social historian, Ken Worpole
Tuesday, 10 May 2022 (7pm- 8pm)
The Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London, SE1 7LB
Tel: 020 7401 8865
For booking and further information: https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/events/ken-worpole-under-east-anglian-skies/