Sir Cedric Morris
With Cedric Morris and Lett-Haines
by James Beechey
Extract from the catalogue of Kathleen Hale 1898-2000 - Memorial Exhibition,
Michael Parkin Fine Art and The Redfern Gallery, 2001
'Morris and Haines were Hale's almost exact contemporaries. Morris (the heir to a baronetcy, to which he succeeded in 1947) was a self-taught artist and horticulturalist who was to win considerable acclaim in both fields; Haines (known always as Lett) was also a talented painter, though he subjugated his own career to organizing and promoting that of his friend. Their relationship had begun in November 1918 - perhaps on Armistice night itself - and, though Haines was at the time married, he and Morris immediately set up house together. They were to remain together for the next sixty years, despite various other attachments on both sides - including, at one time, Haines's with Kathleen Hale. After a short stay at Newlyn in Cornwall, in 1920 they transferred their base to Paris, where they were distinctive figures in the expatriate artistic community, mingling with Juan Gris and Fernard Leger, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, Nancy Cunard and Ernest Hemmingway.
'I remember them coming gracefully towards us along the Boulevard [Montparnasse] like gazelles,' Hale wrote in A Slender Reputation, the two of them extremely handsome and elegant.' Morris and Haines took their new companions to 'a seedy dive', the Boule de Cidre, which had been a favourite rendezvous of Verlaine and Rimbaud, but which they quickly evacuated when Haines got wind that a gang of Apaches, spoiling for a fight, were expected; and thence to the Lapin Agile in Montmartre, in the previous century a well-known haunt of the Impressionists. This was the authentic taste of Paris that Hale craved. Her acquaintance at this time with Morris and Haines was brief; but when three years later - by now married to Douglas McClean, a young doctor working in medical research - she was living in John Street in Bloomsbury, she was delighted to discover that they had returned to London and taken a large studio around the corner in Great Ormond Street. Here too they provided Hale with boisterous entertainment, regularly inviting her to their spectacular and much talked-about parties.
In London, Morris basked in artistic as well as social success. He joined the London Group and was proposed by Ben Nicholson for membership of the Seven and Five Society; he exhibited at Tooth's and the Leicester Galleries and at the Venice Biennale; he won praise from R.H. Wilenski and Roger Fry. Hale, meanwhile, was enjoying her own, more modest, achievements. She first came to notice with a series of highly accomplished pencil drawings of fishermen's wives and children, very much in the manner of her mentor Augustus John, made during visit in 1920 with Frank Potter to the Normandy fishing port of Etaples: these she exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and with the New English Art Club, and several were reproduced in the Studio and Drawing and Design. During her early years in London, she lived a hand-to-mouth existence, flitting from one temporary job to another - colouring maps for the Ministry of Food, driving wagons in the Land Army, collecting debts for a window-cleaner and working as an extra in the films - and moving lodging-houses as often as she changed employment (though gravitating always towards Soho and Fitzrovia). She had few opportunities to paint in oils, and probably could not have afforded to, but this was not altogether a hindrance: it forced her to experiment with cheaper media, and her technical appreciation of these was later to prove crucial when she had to master the complicated process of lithography required for the Orlando books. She learnt the art of illustration designing book-jackets for W.H. Smith; she made linocuts based on drawings done at Regent's Park zoo; Duncan Grant taught her how to mix colours when she assisted him and Vanessa Bell with an interior decoration project; and she developed her own technique of 'metal pictures', collages on foil and glass similar to those produced contemporaneously by Dora Carrington. When she was able, in the late 1920s and '30s, to work on a larger scale, she painted the rooftops of Fitzroy Street and Bloomsbury in a bold, simplified style that owed much to those artists already associated with these areas.
In 1929, tiring of the social whirl, Morris and Haines left London, to lease The Pound outside Higham in Suffolk - a house which, three years later, was bequeathed to Morris by their landlord. In 1931, Hale and McClean made their own exodus from London, settling at Rabley Willow, a large Victorian house near Elstree in Hertfordshire. At The Pound, Morris, who was soon to gain an international reputation as a plantsman, set about creating the first of his two great gardens; at Rabley Willow, Hale and McClean began to construct their own rural idyll. It was, Hale acknowledged, a perfect environment in which to bring up their two sons, but she found domesticity stifling: her art was not progressing, while her relationship with her husband was growing increasingly strained. On the advice of a psychoanalyst, she initiated an affair with Haines. 'I knew that [it] would be no bed of roses,' she recalled with characteristic candour, 'and I also knew that I wouldn't be the only bush in the rose-bed.' But she believed that it had the effect of re-invigorating her marriage, and of curing her painter's block too.
By the time Hale became Haines's mistress, she had already embarked on the Orlando books, which were to make her famous. Many of her friends make appearances in them: they include Haines, who was the prototype for the Katnapper in Orlando's Silver Wedding, and Morris, who turned up as Blanche's dancing master in Orlando's Home Life. The Katnapper's magnetism for cats was based on Haines's own allure for people: 'like the caddis-fly grub acquiring a carapace of sticks and stones, Lett attracted an entourage of all ages and from varied environments,' Hale commented. Morris's inclusion was prompted by his claim that no-one had ever achieved a true likeness of him; Hale's caricature, he was compelled to admit, succeeded where others had previously failed. The setting for Orlando's Silver Wedding was based on The Pound, though the house itself was altered to look like a cat; many individual features in the book were also drawn from the house, and Morris's large colony of cats provided Hale with an inexhaustible supply of models. With Morris, Hale shared a profound love of animals and an intense fascination with the natural world; but as his own visibility as an artist began to diminish, he could not resist an acerbic dig at her rising celebrity. 'Do you mean to tell me, Kathleen,' he asked her once, 'that you have hung your slender reputation on the broad shoulders of a eunuch cat?'
In 1937 Morris and Haines, with hardly any qualifications for doing so, opened the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at nearby Dedham in Essex. By the close of its first season, its pupils had grown in number from one to sixty, and the future of this unorthodox establishment was assured. Even the catastrophic burning-down of the original premises in 1939 proved only a temporary setback: the school, and Morris and Haines with it, moved the next year to Benton End, a Georgian mansion with a sixteenth-century core, set in acres of land on the edge of the Suffolk village of Hadleigh. At Dedham pupils had lodged in the village; at Benton End they lived in the house, joining in the lively dinners every evening, cooked and supervised by Haines, and dancing afterwards to gramophone records of Latin-American music. Instruction was often given outside, watched over by peacocks, cockatoos, cows and ducks, while gardeners wove their way around the easels - the garden itself, and especially Morris's collection of irises, soon became as well-known as the school. Pupils of all ages were admitted and encouraged, non-professional artists as well as those ambitious for a career in painting: among the latter were Lucian Freud, David Carr, Joan Warburton, Glyn Morgan and Maggi Hambling. Though never herself a pupil, Hale was, from the start, a frequent guest at Benton End, with her own room in the house; and it was in this stimulating setting that she rediscovered her appetite for painting, which she felt had been starved by her obsession with Orlando.
There was never any attempt to instill a house style at Benton End - the philosophy of the school insisted on freedom from doctrine - but the clarity of vision and searching scrutiny that characterized Morris's own painting certainly rubbed off on his students, including the school's two most distinguished pupils, Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling. Hale's passionate, careful observation of natural forms - so apparent in the details of her illustrations for Orlando, and later, when she had extended her repertoire, in her still-lifes, often composed of flowers bred by Morris - chimed perfectly with this pre-occupation. At the same time, as Margaret Drabble notes above, Hale's superficially serene work often reveals an underlying sense of disquiet. This becomes particularly blatant in the paintings done at Benton End in the 1940s: The Agony in the Garden; [the title was supplied by Hale's husband), which depicts a wailing tiger in a garden of Morris's over-sized cacti; and Mortal Combat, in which two caterpillars prepare to do battle. The affinity here is with Haines rather than Morris, and for a while Hale seems to have been at least as influenced by the idiosyncratic, spiky symbolism of her lover's painting as by Morris's commitment to psychological penetration.
With Morris and Haines, Hale later wrote, she was 'back in the magic world' she had abandoned at the time of their marriage. If her Orlando books were written out of a subconscious desire to create the united family she had never had when growing up, then her acceptance into the extended family of Benton End went a long to way to compensate for the restrictions that married life imposed. Long after her affair with Haines had fizzled out, she maintained her visits to Benton End. Maggi Hambling, who first came to know the house in 1960 at the age of fifteen, recalls that there were 'always vibrations in the air if "Moggie" were due. I remember this tiny figure striding into the kitchen, a little ball of intensity with darting, inquisitive eyes, a nose like the beak of an eagle and a deep voice with a laugh in it.' The school itself faded away with Haines's death in 1978, though Morris remained in situ till his death four years later. But through her own long life, Hale continued to carry something of the remarkable spirit of Benton End with her, joining art classes at Oxford Polytechnic in the late 1960s after her husband died, so that she might learn more about non-representational painting, and 'keeping her hand in', as she put, through her nineties, despite deteriorating eyesight, by drawing caricatures of wrestlers from television. Though she sometimes blamed Orlando for absorbing so much of her time and energy that she never had the chance to realise her greater artistic aspirations, she remained, to the end, an artist first and an illustrator second.'