Through the 1940s and 1950s, Benton End, a Grade II listed 16th-century house located on the outskirts of Hadleigh in Suffolk, became the centre of a diverse community of 20th-century artists, writers, and horticulturalists.

Named the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawings, renowned artists including Lucian Freud, Maggi Hambling, John Nash and David Carr were amongst those whose creativity was inspired by their time spent at the school in Benton End.

Established in 1940 by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, Benton End afforded space for Morris, Lett-Haines and many of their students to live as well as work, and its communal atmosphere and inspiring approach to learning is credited with playing a vital influence on the artists who spent time there for providing a space where artistic ideas and techniques could be exchanged.

The scenic environment at Benton End also played a vital role in the inspiration it gave to its residents on account of the rare and exotic plants that were grown at Benton End by Cedric Morris. Many of the plants at Benton End were collected by Morris on expeditions to the Mediterranean and North Africa and were often introduced to cultivation in Britain for the first time in that setting. Morris planted them in an idiosyncratic style which some view as an extension of his work as a painter. The garden Morris created, and the plants he grew, also influenced many important figures in British horticulture. Frequent visitor Vita Sackville-West grew his irises at Sissinghurst and Beth Chatto was mentored by Morris, with a large proportion of the plants in her world-famous garden at nearby Elmstead Market originating from Benton End.

Although it is not currently open to the public, Benton End has recently been purchased by the Pinchbeck Foundation with plans for its reopening as a centre for art and horticulture, administered by the Garden Museum.

Firstsite Director Sally Shaw explained why Benton End has been chosen to feature as an Exhibition at the gallery: “Benton End had a similar ethos to Firstsite in that we also believe that absolutely everyone is creative. It was also ahead of its time in its focus on wellbeing and the positive benefits art can bring to people – something we also reflect through everything we do at Firstsite. This exhibition and our series of workshops connected to the exhibition are all designed to help our community explore and develop the creativity which is in everyone, and discover how using your imagination can help us all to feel better, think differently and find new connections and commonalities with other people.

“The influence of Benton End has been so far reaching, playing an important role in the cultural life of not only Colchester and East Anglia, but much more widely. Morris was the only person of his generation to achieve national status as both an artist and a gardener, and our exhibition will explore how these two disciplines intertwined to form one of the most remarkable artistic environments of the 20th-century.

“Life with Art brings together a stunning selection of paintings, sculptures, etchings and drawings – showcasing the amazing artists and creative talent which emanates from East Anglia, with the subjects of many of the artworks also celebrating the beautiful landscapes of the region. The exhibition will surround visitors with these incredible artworks, creating an inspiring space which evokes a real sense of Benton End.”

The exhibition, Life with Art: Benton End and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, will run at the Firstsite Gallery from Saturday the 11 Dec 2021 to 18 April 2022. As well as exhibiting the works of the artists who attended Benton End, the exhibition will also include creative workshops inspired by the environment created by Morris and Lett-Haines, as well as activities centred around wellbeing, cooking and gardening.