Why an avant-garde iris collector is sharing a space with Gainsborough | Painting

When the first visitors cross the threshold of the refurbished Gainsborough House, the childhood home of the artist Thomas Gainsborough in Sudbury, Suffolk, on Monday,the work of another, less famous, local artist and knight of the realm will be competing for attention.

Cedric Morris, plant enthusiast, landscape painter and portraitist, is being celebrated for the first time in the museum, which has undergone a £10m revamp. An entire room has been filled with his paintings, some of them given by the renowned artist and sculptor Maggi Hambling. The new space, set up in the grand former home of one of Britain’s best known 18th-century artists, will boast 15 of Morris’s works. “People may already know his flower paintings, but there is so much more. And there has been such a renaissance in Cedric’s standing, and new interest, that we wanted to dedicate a permanent display,” said Mark Bills, director of the new museum and gallery.

Cemetary Cadaques, 1954, by Cedric Morris.
Cemetary Cadaques, 1954, by Cedric Morris. Photograph: © Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, Suffolk

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 about 90 new varieties of iris, a plant with which he was obsessed and which he painted repeatedly.

“Cedric saw himself as both an artist and plantsman,” said Bills. “His landscape paintings and the emphasis he placed on plant life and ecology were ahead of their time. And he already had a connection to Gainsborough House because he gave us one of his lily paintings to help with the original fundraising in 1957.”

Maggi Hambling with cigarette in front of a painting
Maggi Hambling studied under Morris and donated many portraits to Gainsborough’s House. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Morris is also closely associated with his own former house and gardens at Benton End in nearby Hadleigh. Inside this 16th-century property, currently under renovation, Morris and his partner, the artist Arthur Lett-Haines, established the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, which became a sanctuary for experimental artists, writers and musicians, to say nothing of the botanists.

Less recognised today than Morris’s popular flower studies is his skilled portraiture. It was this side of his work which Hambling now hoped to highlight, said Bills.

Lucy Harwood 1941 by Cedric Morris
Lucy Harwood, 1941 by Cedric Morris, who also executed many portraits. Photograph: © Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, Suffolk

“Maggi’s connection to Morris has been crucial,” he explained. “She studied painting with him at Benton End and it was a transformational point in her life as an artist. Even afterwards she stayed very close to both Cedric and to Arthur Lett-Haines. In the end, they left much of their work to her and to Robert Davey, who had worked at Benton End, and thanks to their joint generosity we now have a lot of the portraits that Maggi feels have been so unfairly overlooked.”

Before coming to Suffolk, Morris had travelled widely, 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 conserved and catalogued at Sudbury. Although he experimented with touches of surrealism and abstraction in his early career, he moved permanently towards more figurative art, although executed in his own modern, idiosyncratic style.

“While Gainsborough made his living from portraits of famous or rich people, he also painted them for love, including pictures of his daughters. Cedric, however, did not paint portraits so often on commission but rather as an expression of feeling for friends, lovers and family,” said Bills. “He was a great portrait artist, because, like Gainsborough, he was able to paint beyond the skin somehow, to give a sense of the character of his sitter. His faces may look distorted, but they do reveal character.”

The refurbishment was supported by a £4.5m National Lottery Heritage Fund grant and includes a new three-storey building, as well as the restoration of the Grade I-listed townhouse that the artist grew up in. Now the largest gallery in Suffolk, it will display the most comprehensive collection of Gainsborough’s work in the world.