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Visual art: Life with Art: Benton End and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing (Firstsite, Colchester)

18 March 2022

Susan Gray visits an exhibition about the Benton End school

© the estate of Glyn Morgan/Bridgeman Images

Cedric Morris in His Garden, c.1957, oil on board, by Glyn Morgan (1926-2015) (Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries)

Cedric Morris in His Garden, c.1957, oil on board, by Glyn Morgan (1926-2015) (Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries)

THE East Anglian Art School was Suffolk’s answer to the Bloomsbury set’s Charleston farmhouse, with a hint of Dartington Hall’s utopianism thrown in.

Founded at Dedham in 1937 by Cecil Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, the school moved to Benton End in Hadleigh in 1940, after Dedham Art School caught fire: Lucian Freud’s smouldering cigarette butt was the prime suspect.

Freud was one of the first students, having recently been thrown out of Dartington. Morris’s Cotyledon & Eggs, oil on board, from 1944, is a companion piece to The Eggs, which illustrated a 1955 article by Elizabeth David, later becoming the cover for An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. Benton End was a Who’s Who of post-war Britain, Morris providing plants for Beth Chatto’s garden.

Firstsite’s exhibition, organised with Colchester Art Society, is at pains not only to showcase the most celebrated students — Freud, Maggi Hambling, and John Nash — but also to bring attention to less widely known talents, including Rosemary Rutherford, an unofficial war artist, Lucy Harwood, and the children’s author Kathleen Hale.

Dicky Chopping, who illustrated Ian Fleming’s novels, has a book illustration and a drawing of an artichoke, a study for a larger trompe-l’oeil, on display with Morris’s paintings of plants and birds. Chopping’s partner, Denis Wirth Miller, is represented by two landscapes and Watercolour after John Nash. At their home in Wivenhoe, Chopping and Wirth Miller had a riotous time with their neighbour Francis Bacon.

Towner, EastbournePortrait of Cedric Morris, 1930, by Frances Hodgkins (Towner, Eastbourne)

Nash, the first living artist to be given a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy, has one landscape from the RA’s 1967 show, February Evening, Glemham, Suffolk, painted in 1958. While Nash’s winter river valley is a tangle of bare branches framing mirror-still water, Wirth Miller’s work is a softer, more symbolic landscape, where planes of yellow and green create field contours, and tree foliage is a broad slash of rust and gold at the centre.

“Life with Art” reflects the East Anglian ethos of being an art school for everyone, and there are empty frames waiting to house work created by visitors. Morris welcomed anyone who was prepared to work, and who could manage “Three guineas a week and bring your own sheets.”

Maggi Hambling paid her fees by working in Benton End’s kitchen. A duo from four portraits of Frances Rose, Hambling’s Clapham neighbour, form a focal point for the exhibition’s first room. The pair create a poignant distillation of old age. In the larger work, Rose’s arthritic hands draw the eye to the lower section of the canvas: they are a twisted mass of purple, blue, and livid yellow, but delineated fingers add dignity, highlighting oval-shaped nails and a wedding ring.

In the head-and-shoulders portrait, impasto brushwork make the sitter’s nose and nostrils sit proud of the canvas, and her eyes, with one eyelid bearing the red swelling of cataract surgery, look out from thick layers of surrounding paint.

© MAGGI HAMBLING/BRIDGEMAN IMAGESFrances Rose (3), 1973 (oil on canvas), by Maggi Hambling (b. 1945) (Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London)

Hambling acknowledges the surrealist Lett-Haines as her great mentor, and her portrait of his final months, Lett Dreaming, shows the artist on a bed, his jawline and socket line edged thickly in grey, with slippers dangling off his stockinged feet, as if about to drop out of the frame and on the floor. Contrasting with the snowy pillow and sheets forming a fluffy cocoon, a precisely striped rug in gold, black, and orange, like a tiger, rumples across the image, lending majesty to the near-deathbed scene.

Rosemary Rutherford is one of Benton End’s rediscovered stars. The daughter of John Finlay Rutherford, Vicar of Broomfield, she was given permission to record her nursing experiences by the War Artists Advisory Committee. A watercolour from 1941 shows a brother and sister, possibly from the Kinder Transport, sitting on a box, the colour palette in Two Refugee Children becoming paler and thinner as it progresses up to their watchful and wary faces.

Nehemiah, Rutherford’s design for a stained-glass window from the 1960s, depicts the blue-robed royal cupbearer (Nehemiah 1.11), head bowed over a chalice held in extended arms, which divide the plane in two. A darkly rendered figure on a donkey labours up a hill in the lower left quadrant, while an expressive city in sketch black lines forms the background.

Rutherford is one of the many artists to have painted Benton End’s garden, showing the school’s centrality in British artistic life.

“Life with Art: Benton End and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing” at Firstsite, Lewis Gardens, High Street, Colchester, Essex, until 18 April. Phone 01206 713700. firstsite.uk

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