FEATURE: Photo synthesis... duo zoom in on artist’s iris legacy
Renowned artist Sir Cedric Morris spent half a century painting and teaching in his adopted home county of Suffolk.
Flowers were a favourite subject, filling his canvases with a glorious profusion of colour.
But he did not just paint them. He grew them too.
The acclaimed painter was also a master in the art of plant breeding, and the ones he loved most were irises.
In his garden in Hadleigh – as joyously colourful as his paintings – he would raise up to 1,000 iris seedlings a year. At least 90 of them went on to become named varieties.
Now, the country’s foremost champion of Cedric Morris irises and a professional garden photographer have joined forces to celebrate the blooms’ unique beauty.
Clare Dawson has taken stunning close-up portraits of the irises – many of which are now incredibly rare – for an exhibition.
But it was only possible thanks to the tireless work of horticulturalist Sarah Cook who has devoted more than a decade to tracking down and saving the plants from extinction.
Sarah, former head gardener at Vita Sackville-West’s iconic Sissinghurst, holds the Plant Heritage national collection of the irises.
In 2015, they won her the gardening world’s most coveted prize – a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Almost all Clare’s iris images are from the Suffolk garden of Sarah and her husband Jim Marshall, also an RHS gold medallist for his Malmaison carnations.
The task was not without challenges as the irises are planted close together.
“I didn’t want to tread on anything, and to isolate each one from its mates was quite tricky,” she says.
The photographs will be on show at the Secret Garden cafe, Friars Street, Sudbury, until the end of August.
Meanwhile, people who would like to learn more can hear a talk by Sarah entitled ‘Sir Cedric Morris – the plantsman’ at Hadleigh Town Hall later this month.
Sarah and Jim were introduced to Clare and her husband Mark by mutual friends around 10 years ago.
Since then Clare has often worked with Sarah, and photographed every stage of her progress to Chelsea.
Their one disappointment was that photos which included Sarah’s Ipswich Town bear mascot – she and Jim are devoted fans – were not in demand.
“Sadly they weren’t so popular with the gardening fraternity,” Sarah recalls.
Clare previously got a Plant Heritage grant to take pictures of the irises, and of Jim’s carnation collections.
She gave up running her own trading business and went back to university to study photography in her 50s, graduating with a first class degree.
“I had no artistic talent at all before, but going to university made me see things differently,” she says.
“I remember walking with a friend, picking up a leaf, and saying ‘isn’t that beautiful?’ and she said she wouldn’t have even noticed it.”
“At first I did mainly still life photography. Then I decided I wanted a change and began to do gardens. Sarah’s was the first one I photographed.”
Her work now appears regularly in Garden News magazine and she loves visiting different gardens and meeting their owners. “Gardeners and plantsmen are the nicest people in the world,” she adds.
Two years ago Clare and Mark, a retired Lloyds underwriting agent who now edits the Colne-Stour Countryside Association’s magazine, moved from north Essex to Hadleigh.
They live in Benton Street, close to Cedric Morris’s old home Benton End.
The artist and his partner Arthur Lett-Haines moved into the farmhouse in 1939 after their art school in Dedham, where Lucian Freud was a pupil, burnt down. They previously lived in Higham.
Benton End became their new school and the garden a plantsman’s paradise.
It was here Sir Cedric, an hereditary baronet, bred his distinctive irises in subtle shades of blue, purple, yellow, pink and white.
Always an animal lover, he named some after his pets. Two of his cats are immortalised as Benton Menace and Benton Baggage.
His house and garden were familiar to Sarah long before she thought of horticulture as a career.
She was born and raised in Hadleigh, and her mother used to help out at events at Benton End.
Sarah and Jim met when they both worked for the National Trust. They retired to Suffolk, buying a barn conversion in Shelley near Hadleigh.
Then Sarah, recalling how seeing a Benton iris at Sissinghurst reminded her of home, decided to turn plant detective and start a collection.
Her career in horticulture began almost by accident. “I fell into gardening, really. I had no idea what to do with myself. I finished up working at Kew, then got a job at Sissinghurst, and saw Benton Nigel which made me feel at home.”
Since retiring she has searched far and wide for the last traces of the irises.
“I have 27 now and about 10 others whose names I’m not quite sure about.
“I found Benton Baggage after publicity about my success at Chelsea.
“Someone phoned from Ireland who’d worked at Glasnevin botanic garden. She’d split it up and given some to another gardener which was how we tracked it down.”
Sarah is now on a mission to find Benton Rubeo, named after Sir Cedric’s pet macaw.
It is brownish red, with speckled markings. “I know Rubeo was alive and kicking in Suffolk in 2000, but to positively identify it you need someone who has actually seen it growing,” she says.
Sarah’s talk, part of Hadleigh Festival of Gardening and Art, is at the town hall on Monday, August 21, at 7.30pm.
Artist Maggi Hambling, a pupil of Cedric Morris, will speak about his art at the same venue on Thursday September 7 at 6.30pm.
Tickets for both events are on sale at The Idler Bookshop in Hadleigh.