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Benton Irises: It’s all in a name

By Lucy Skellorn

Artist plantsman Cedric Morris (1889-1982) will be celebrated on the Main Avenue at The RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year in an exciting collaboration between Nurture Landscapes and garden designer Sarah Price. A distinguished painter, Morris experimented with the cross-pollination of irises to produce new colour combinations. Famous for their off-beat shades, many were named with the ‘Benton’ prefix.

“Sir Cedric Morris, a rangy, sunburnt, rather contemplative figure divided very full life between painting and gardening. He was a painter first and a gardener second and now the two arts have joined forces in his affection, each contributing something to the other. Just as it is the botanist who informs his canvasses, so it is that the painter at work when the fine iris pollen is carried from another stigma to produce yet another ‘Benton’ bloom.” – Ronald Blythe, The Sunday Times, 8 June 1958.

At Chelsea Flower Show, Sarah Price will feature select ‘Benton’ blooms in her garden inspired by Cedric’s colour palette and abandoned plantsman’s paradise at Benton End in Suffolk.

Iris ‘Benton Olive’ (unregistered, introduced 1949)

Benton Olive (c) Lucy Skellorn

A stunning combination of creamy olive, purple veining and a lilac splash on the falls.

Although olive in colour, this iris was actually named after Cedric Morris’ friend Olive Murrell. Along with her husband, Murrell had set up Orpington Nursery in Kent. They grew irises on a large scale and introduced the first series of tall bearded irises bred by Cedric Morris. Olive Murrell was herself a very successful iris breeder and personal friend to other revered hybridizers W.R Dykes, A.J Bliss and G.P Baker. In 1935 Olive Murrell was awarded the Foster Memorial Plaque, a special award given to those who contribute to the advance of the Genus; and in 1940 she gained the Dykes Medal for her own great iris ‘White City’, an iris that Cedric Morris used in his own crosses.

Olive Murrell from 1957 YB (c) British Iris Society

Iris ‘Benton Menace’ (1946)

Benton Menace (c) Alison Sargeant

Morris had a deep fondness and empathy for animals, resulting in quite a menagerie at Benton End. This included Rubeo, the scarlet macaw who would nip the legs of anyone wearing shorts and swore liberally. There were also a host of cats that roamed the property, many of them predominantly cream-coloured, locally known as Suffolk Creams. Among them the one-eyed ‘Mrs Peace’, ‘Baggage’ (on account of her having had so many litters of kittens) and ‘ Menace’- a particularly troublesome Tom.

Cat at Benton End (c) Estate of Elvic Steele
Cedric Morris and pet cat, photo courtesy Sarah Cook

Both cats have been immortalised in Iris ‘Benton Baggage’ and ‘Benton Menace’, but it is ‘Benton Menace’, with its fabulous rich purple falls and ruffled, plum-coloured standards, which has been chosen for the Chelsea garden.

Benton Nigel (1956)

Benton Nigel (c) Lucy Skellorn

In 1952 Morris was introduced to Nigel Scott by plantswoman Beth Chatto. Nigel was a gardener and poet who during the war had spent time aboard a minesweeper in the Mediterranean, occasionally being dropped off to spend a few days climbing in the Southern Alps. This is where his love of species plants had begun. A few months after the two men had met Nigel moved into Benton End and helped Cedric in the garden. With his handsome hooked nose, Nigel was nicknamed ‘Bird’ and would accompany Cedric on his winter painting and plant hunting expeditions abroad. The two enjoyed a relationship and with Nigel’s assistance, the variety of plants grown multiplied. This was the hey-day of the garden.

Cedric and Nigel

“During his time, the garden expanded and blossomed to the peak of its development and fame. This takes nothing away from Cedric as its creator; in Nigel he found a companion who shared his enthusiasm for plants to its fullest extent. They worked together from dawn till dusk.” – Beth Chatto in her article for Hortus; A Gardening Journal No. 1, Spring 1987.

Tragically, in January of 1957, whilst on one of their plant-hunting trips to the Canary Islands, Nigel Scott caught a fever and after seven days of illness, died.

Iris ‘Benton Lorna’ (unregistered, introduced 1956)

Benton Lorna (c) Lucy Skellorn

Lorna Styles was a student at Benton End and for a time, tenant at Cedric’s first Suffolk house, ‘The Pound’ where she continued the tradition of wild parties.

In 1948 Lorna began working for Toynbee Nursery in Sussex, introducing them to Cedric Morris and his irises. Cedric Morris was happy for commercial nurseries to name his plants to promote them as they saw fit. Toynbees named several of the seedlings after local towns, hence ‘Arundel’ and ‘Storrington’ and they named one for Lorna Styles – ‘Benton Lorna’.

Iris ‘Benton Farewell’ (1984)

Benton Farewell (c) Lucy Skellorn

Following Cedric’s death in 1982, rows of seedling iris cultivars were found growing in the kitchen garden. Many of them were taken away by George E. Cassidy, secretary of the British Irish Society. In the summer of the following year they all flowered. Among them, Cassidy reported one beauty, a fine tall beard with good branching, lots of flowers slightly ruffled, a delicate pale lilac with dove markings and shaded with pale brown. This iris he named and registered ‘Benton Farewell’ as a “last modest tribute to a great man” (George E. Cassidy, The British Iris Society newsletter, No. 80 1983).

The main nursery to stock Cedric Morris’ cultivars was R. Wallace and Co. in Tunbridge Wells. Their 1947 catalogue features a silverpoint iris illustration by Cedric Morris. They list more than 40 varieties including Iris ‘Benton Argent’, I. ‘Benton Opal’ and I. ‘Benton Pearl’, which will also feature in Sarah Prices’ much-anticipated garden at Chelsea this year.

Wallace’s Irises catalogue, 1947

Lucy Skellorn trained in fine art, has a National Collection of historic irises bred by her great-great-grandfather Sir Michael Foster and is a researcher for the Benton End House and Garden Trust, a subsidiary charity of the Garden Museum who recently acquired the house and its grounds, intent on turning it back into a place of study once more.

Benton End House & Gardens: find out more

Where to see

Iris (Sir Cedric Morris introductions)
Iris open day Saturday 20th May (11am-4pm)
Hullwood Barn, Shelley, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP75RE

Contact Sarah Cook  Sarahmalmaisons@gmail.com

Iris Suffolk irises pre-1985 (including Morris, Long & Chadburn introductions)
Open by appointment
Contact Steve Baker steve_baker@hotmail.co.uk

Where to buy Benton End irises
Beth Chatto Gardens Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex CO7 7DB. Tel 01206 822007


Woottens of Wenhaston, The Iris Field, Hall Road, Wenhaston, Suffolk IP19 9HF. Tel 01502 478258

Todd’s Botanics North Essex,
01376 561212

Jelly Cottage Plants
01263 577727

Irises of Sissinghurst, Roughlands Farm, Goudhurst Road, Marden, Kent TN12 9NH
01622 831511

Howard Nurseries (strictly wholesale only)

Top image: Cedric Morris with irises in garden at Benton End, courtesy of Twig O’Malley

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