When the first visitors cross the threshold of the renovated Gainsborough Housethe boyhood home of artist Thomas Gainsborough in Sudbury, Suffolk, on Monday, the work of another less famous local artist and knight of the realm will compete for attention.
Plant enthusiast, landscape and portrait artist Cedric Morris is being celebrated for the first time at the museum, which has undergone a £10 million redevelopment. An entire room has been filled with his paintings, some of them donated by the renowned artist and sculptor Maggi Hambling. The new space, set up in the former home of one of Britain’s best-known 18th-century artists, will display 15 of Morris’s works. “People may already know about his flower paintings, but there is so much more. And there’s been such a renaissance in Cedric’s position, and new interest, that we wanted to dedicate a permanent exhibit,” said Mark Bills, director of the new museum and gallery.
Morris, who died in 1982, was a Welsh-born artist who settled in suffolk in the 1930s, following an influential spell at the heart of London’s avant-garde scene. Among gardeners, Morris is probably best known for introducing around 90 new varieties of iris, a plant he was obsessed with and which he repeatedly painted.
“Cedric saw himself as an artist and a plant man,” Bills said. “His landscape paintings of him and the emphasis he placed on plant life and ecology were ahead of his time. And he already had a connection to Gainsborough House because he gave us one of his lily paintings to help with the original fundraiser in 1957.”
Morris is also closely associated with his former home and gardens at Benton End in nearby Hadleigh. Within this 16th-century property, currently undergoing renovation, Morris and his partner, the artist Arthur Lett-Haines, established the East Anglian School of Frame and Drawing, which became a sanctuary for experimental artists, writers and musicians, not to mention botanists.
Less recognized today than Morris’s popular flower studies is his skillful portraiture. It was this side of his work that Hambling now hoped to highlight, Bills said.
“Maggi’s connection to Morris has been crucial,” he explained. “She studied painting with him at Benton End and it was a turning point in his life as an artist. She even afterward remained very close to both Cedric and Arthur Lett-Haines. In the end, much of her work was left to her and Robert Davey, who had worked at Benton End, and through her joint generosity we now have many of the portraits that Maggi feels have been unfairly overlooked.” .
Before coming to Suffolk, Morris had traveled extensively, living for a time in Cornwall and Paris, and collecting plants and paintings. He also frequently painted people, animals, birds, and landscapes, examples of which have been preserved and cataloged at Sudbury. Although he experimented with touches of surrealism and abstraction early in his career, he moved steadily toward more figurative art, albeit executed in his own idiosyncratic and modern style.
“While Gainsborough drew portraits of famous or wealthy people for a living, he also painted them out of love, including pictures of his daughters. Cedric, however, did not paint portraits as often on commission, but more as an expression of feelings for friends, lovers and family,” Bills said. “He was a great portraitist because, like Gainsborough, he could paint beyond the skin in a way, to give an idea of the character of his sitter. His faces may appear distorted, but they reveal character.”
the the redevelopment was supported by a £4.5 million National Lottery Heritage Fund grant and includes a new three-storey building, as well as the restoration of the Grade I listed terraced house in which the artist grew up. Now Suffolk’s largest gallery, it will display the most comprehensive collection of Gainsborough’s work in the world.