Tuesday 22 May 2018

Flower Power : Floral Rainbows

The rainbow has been a symbol of lgbt pride since 1978 when the first Rainbow Pride flag was designed. To the ancient Greeks the rainbow was personified by their goddess Iris.

Legends of the origin of the flowers that now bear her name go back even further to the ancient Egyptians. The symbolism attached to the flowers also go back to ancient Egypt. To the Greeks the goddess Iris was a messenger of the gods and the rainbow was her path from Olympus to earth, and when she foot on the ground a flower grew, the flower that now bears her name. The symbolism of the iris flower survives today in the fleur-de-lys emblem. The fleur-de-lys provides a link between the goddess of the rainbow and the rainbow pride of the lgbt community. I’ll return to that idea later this year when I look at the used of the fleur-de-lys in queer heraldry, and propose a new flag for the lgbt community (ironically, one of the other common names for the iris is flag).

Today, because the Chelsea Flower Show is happening this week, we’ll look at one man and the establishing of a National Collection of 90 or more rare vintage varieties of iris he bred and introduced over a 40 year period.

Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982), although a prolific plant breeder, was primarily an artist. His plants featured in many of his paintings. Art was in his blood. His mother was also an artist and a needlewoman, and an ancestral aunt co-founded the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Cedric was studying at the Académie Delécluse in Paris when World War I broke out. He joined the Artists Rifles, a reserve regiment made up of artists, actors, musicians and performers. The Rifles saw active service in the trenches of France. Because of a botched operation when Cedric was a child he was considered unfit for active duty and was discharged in 1917. After the war he met the man who was to spend the rest of his life with him, Arthur Lett-Haines (1894-1978).

Arthur was married to an American, and when she decided to return to the USA Arthur decided to stay behind in England and live with Cedric Morris. Their relationship was an open one. Cedric and Arthur both had affairs. They moved to Cornwall and then to Paris in 1920. They returned in 1926 and eventually founded the east Anglian School of Painting and Drawing.

In 1939 Cedric and Arthur moved this school to Benton End, a rambling Tudor farmhouse in Hadleigh, Suffolk. This was to become a floral and artistic paradise which attracted many important artists and horticulturalists. Maggi Hambling and Lucien Freud are among the artists who studied there.

Cedric Morris had often turned the gardens of his homes into colourful, luscious displays. At Benton End he began to take a more artistic approach to plants by propagating hundreds of irises every year, carefully selecting colours and attributes that would show off the flowers at their best.

He produced about 93 new iris varieties and maned most of them after Benton End. There was Benton Nigel (named after a former lover, Nigel Scott, who was introduced to Cedric by renowned horticulturalist Beth Chatto who sadly passed away last week), Benton Stella and others named after friends. There was also Benton Baggage and Benton Menace, both named after his cats. This made it easier to locate some of these plants because few of them became commercial successes and survive, if at all, as long forgotten flowers in a half-hidden corner of a private stately home, or as a specimen rhizome on a shelf in some plant collection.

A revival of Cedric Morris’s irises came at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2015. Sarah Cook, Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, rediscovered the Benton Nigel iris in the Sissinghurst gardens. This was the catalyst for an international hunt to find all of Cedric’s irises and establish an official National Collection, just like there are for works of art. This was recognised in 2006 when the hard work done by Sarah Cook and her team with the Cedric Morris iris collection being granted National Collection status by Plant Heritage.

By 2015 Sarah had collected 25 of the 93 irises and exhibited them at the Chelsea Flower Show, some of which hadn’t been seen there since the 1950s. They won a Gold Medal.

In 1947 Cedric inherited the family title and became Sir Cedric Morris, 9th Baronet. In his later years he became partially sighted, which must have caused some degree of despair. The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing was closed when Arthur Lett-Haines died in 1978.

Sir Cedric Morris’s botanical legacy wasn’t completely lost, even if most of his iris varieties were. Varieties of poppy, rose, geranium, daffodil and California fuchsia have been named after him. The Garden Museum, next to Lambeth Palace opposite the Houses of Parliament, is currently running an exhibition and series of talks on Sir Cedric.

If you have green fingers and want to have an lgbt themed garden for your own there can be no better was to achieve it than to bring a rainbow of irises and, if you’re lucky enough to find any, one or two of Sir Cedric Morris’s varieties.

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