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Sarah Cook’s search for Cedric Morris irises

By Barbara Segall

A full circle is a pleasing entity… and in nature usually absent. But in the stories about plants and people there is often a satisfying sense of coming full circle. And so it is with the story of Sarah Cook and her quest for the Benton End irises that artist/gardener Sir Cedric Morris bred and introduced.

When she was a child in the 1950s, growing up in the Suffolk town of Hadleigh, the artist and gardener Cedric Morris (in 1947 he inherited the Morris baronetcy and became Sir Cedric Morris), was at the height of his art and garden life at Benton End, his home on the town’s outskirts. There in late 1939 he re-located the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, which he founded in Dedham in 1937, with his life-long partner Arthur Lett-Haines. The original school in Dedham burned down in early 1939, hence the need for a new site.

Morris had begun growing and breeding bearded irises, encouraged by his friend Angus Wilson of Tidcombe Manor, Wiltshire. Morris aimed his breeding towards irises with a plicata patterning described as having stitched or stippled markings on a pale background, banded colour markings that contrast with the base colour. He was also working to produce ‘true’ pink cultivars with no blue undertones, which he achieved with Iris ‘Edward Windsor’.

Benton Edward Windsor (c) Alison Sargeant

Breeding plants is a painstaking enterprise and Morris produced thousands of plants over many years, resulting in some 95 that were named and registered. These were mostly given the prefix ‘Benton’ and often named for friends, and pet animals or birds.

Sarah is vocal in her admiration for Morris’ plant breeding skill: “To get something that looks like a work of art by manipulating genes… is like painting with your mind, knowing the genes and what might come out. He produced about 1,000 seedlings each year and would have chosen five to ten of the best annually. I always felt that Cedric chose those he liked most because they were attractive to him as an artist. His painter’s eye for colour, form and texture seemed to mark them out, essentially as works of art in their own right.”

Poor irises that didn’t meet his criteria went on the compost heap, but a few of what he considered second division irises were sold to raise money for charity at Benton End Open Days when locals and others from farther afield came to admire the garden and the irises. Sarah remembers that her mother served teas to raise money for the Red Cross at these events and that she was taken there by her grandmother.

‘Benton Caramel’ was probably one of the second rank irises. A local Suffolk garden owner, Kate Campbell, won it in a box of irises at one of the Red Cross days and thought it so special that she named and registered it with the Benton prefix.

Benton Pearl (c) Alison Sargeant

In her late twenties Sarah began gardening, which led her into a prestigious horticultural career, including two stints at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent (1984-89 and 1991- 2004). There in her first winter she saw the label for Iris ‘Benton Nigel’. It made her think of home – Hadleigh and of Benton End and Morris. And it is not unlikely that the iris came directly from Morris to Sissinghurst’s creator, Vita Sackville-West, who was a regular visitor to Benton End.

Following Morris’s death in 1982 the school was no more and the house and garden passed to a series of different owners. One of his friends, a formidable horticulturist, Jenny Robinson, was named as his horticultural executor and through her the special plants moved into the gardens of many local plantsmen and women.

In 2004 when Sarah retired as Head Gardener at Sissinghurst she returned to Hadleigh with her plantsman and horticulturist husband Jim Marshall, and apart from immersing herself in garden clubs and societies, she decided on a retirement project. She became a horticultural detective, searching for the lost Benton End irises that had once been highly sought-after but had largely disappeared from commercial production and only found in local gardens. That she and Jim were closely involved with Plant Heritage, the organisation that conserves endangered garden plants, gave her search additional vigour.

Once a few local horticultural grandees knew about her plans, she was introduced to anyone and everyone who had been a Benton End regular or who was known to have any ‘Cedric’ plants in their gardens. Among them was the late Tony Venison, garden editor of Country Life magazine, a friend of Cedric Morris, and owner of many of Cedric’s paintings.

As Sarah notes with delight: “I was doomed! All these local introductions led to many local iris finds and then the search widened.”

With the focus and deadly accuracy of a heat-seeking missile Sarah continued on an amazing hunt that took her to botanic gardens in Europe, such as the University of Basel Botanic Garden, where she found seven of the irises. Plants such as these travelled to many places around the world, bought by or gifted to botanic institutions and individuals.

Benton Judith (c) Alison Sargeant

The search opened conversations and correspondence with gardeners and horticulturists here and abroad. The result is that in the past two decades she has tracked down some 30 of the 95 ‘missing’ named irises that Cedric Morris bred. And she began growing them in the Suffolk garden she shares with Jim, selling them to enthusiasts at local specialist plant fairs.

Sarah now holds the Plant Heritage Historic Collection of Iris (Sir Cedric Morris introductions) and continues to be on the lookout for the remaining lost irises, although she feels that by now she has probably heard from anyone who has a named Morris iris introduction in their gardens or botanical collections. “I cannot imagine that there is anyone else out there growing a Benton iris who hasn’t yet contacted me!”

The last of the irises that made its way to her ‘Benton Baggage’, named for one of the many Benton End cats, came from an Irish garden, Altamont.

Her aim all along was to bring back into cultivation as many as possible of these lovely, rather delicate flowers, that with their pared back, unfussy looks, were so different from modern bearded irises. Sarah says that “my intention was to introduce them to more and more people who will grow them. Then there is more chance that that they will survive for another 100 years.”

Sarah’s husband Jim had asked a local wholesale grower, David Howard of Howard Nurseries, if he would be interested in growing the irises for commercial use. After a few years growing and assessing them David Howard told Sarah he would like to stage one more Chelsea exhibit and suggested that they take the irises and their story to Chelsea, which she did in 2015. The exhibit told the story of Morris the artist and gardener and the irises were centre-stage. They were undoubtedly the stars of the Marquee, and the exhibit was awarded a Gold medal. The attendant publicity shone a spotlight on Cedric Morris and the search for the missing irises.

Benton Menace (c) Alison Sargeant

At this year’s Chelsea Sarah is delighted that a selection of the ‘Benton’ irises are going back on show in The Nurture Landscapes Garden designed by Sarah Price. Among them are ‘Benton Nigel’ (the iris that was Sarah Cook’s first step on the journey), ‘Benton Susan’, ‘Benton Menace’, ‘Benton Lorna’ and ‘Benton Caramel’. And after Chelsea 2023 they will return to Benton End, which is undergoing a transformation and revival.

For Sarah Cook the ‘retirement project’ has been exhilarating – a retirement well-spent. “I have had so much excitement, fun and pleasure… and it is wonderful to know that these plants will go on for another century enjoyed in gardens.”

Along the way not only has she found the plants but she acknowledges that Morris has introduced her to so many people that she would never have encountered… some are very much alive and others, such as the cookery writer Elizabeth David, although deceased, are woven into the Benton End story.

“Cedric introduced me to these people through his plants and the life led at Benton End. One of the loveliest moments for me was at an open day in our own garden a few years ago when writer Ronnie Blythe and Griselda Lewis (‘Benton Griselda’… still lost), both former Benton End regulars, locked eyes across a border. They hadn’t met for decades and it was lovely to see them together once more. I feel Cedric continues to pull the strings and keep the story going.”

Sarah would like to see all the irises that are named for pets and birds reunited in their garden or growing once more at Benton End. In particular, she hopes that one day ‘Benton Rubeo’ named for Morris’ pet macaw, which is in the Montréal Botanical Garden, might be more widely available. Plant health regulations make this difficult. Also at the Montréal Botanical Garden are ‘Benton Burgundy’, ‘Benton Mocha’ and ‘Benton Paprika’.

Benton Rubeo (c) Montreal Botanic Gardens

For Sarah there is additional delight in knowing that Benton End will one day be a place for art and horticulture, as it was in Morris’s ownership. And this is where the story comes full circle, since it is likely that the publicity generated by Sarah’s retirement detective work put Benton End under the spotlight, resulting in its purchase by The Pinchbeck Charitable Trust and subsequent majority gifting to the Garden Museum.

“In a way I think played a small part in getting Benton End back to life… the irises, the people and place… it all spread out into wider ripples. I opened one door and it took me in so many different directions.”

Benton End House & Gardens: find out more

Where to see

Iris (Sir Cedric Morris introductions)
Open by appointment
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)

Barbara Segall is a garden writer and editor of The Horticulturist. She is the author of 13 books including Secret Gardens of East Anglia and her latest book, Secret Gardens of the South East, both published by Frances Lincoln/Quarto Books. She lives and gardens in Suffolk and follows ‘Cedric’ plants and the story of Benton End’s revival with great pleasure. Her blog is at thegardenpost.substack.com and on twitter she is @gardenbarbara and on Instagram @barbarasegall