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Joan Warburton and the Benton End Effect

11 - 29 March 2014

In association with


Prices range from £380 to £3,200

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Benton End which Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines took over in 1940 was a large and rambling sixteenth-century house overlooking the River Brett on the outskirts of Hadleigh, Suffolk. Cedric and Lett were both established artists who had become disillusioned with the commercial art world and given up their London house, taking a lease on Pound Farm, four miles away some years previously. Their school, the East-Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, had been started in 1937 as an “oasis of decency for artists outside the system” and was situated at Dedham. When the building was destroyed by fire in 1939, it was to Benton End that they brought their home, school and garden.

cedric and lett

(Cedric and Lett pen and ink 30 x 20 cm £450)    

Cedric Morris, who was the subject of a major Tate Gallery exhibition in 1984, was the principal of the school but left the organisation of it to his partner. The school was much more than a mere education system and the character of the place was informed by the pre-occupations of the proprietors.

What these two men created here was a paradise, cut off from the metropolitan world but also isolated from the local community where “the Artists’ house” was regarded with suspicion. Nonetheless it was a mecca for visitors as disparate as Beth Chatto, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth David, Benjamin Britten, Randolph Churchill, Edward Bawden, John Banting and Allan Walton.

Benton End was a place which changed the lives of the students who entered its doors. Joan Warburton was one of these.

cats with milk

(Cats with milk 1948 oil on canvas 30 x 35 cm £680)

Warburton was born in 1920. Her father retired from the army in 1921 to the outskirts of Colchester, moving further into the countryside in 1925 to a sixteenth century farmhouse. Hunt balls, sherry parties, a finishing school in Belgium and presentation at Court were supposed to set Joan Warburton firmly on the road to an upper-middle class conventional future. She had been introduced to the atelier of Oswald Poreau at finishing school and decided that painting was something she wanted to take seriously. The family doctor effected an introduction to Cedric Morris and she started as a student in 1937.
She, like many of the students, became a confirmed horticultural enthusiast. Her skills in this area provided her with much of her future subject matter. The school was a setting in which she flourished, finding the company at the school congenial and the frequent lively parties a revelation.

Although she signed up for war work in 1940 (WRENS, an arms factory and the Red Cross Ambulance Corps) she remained a committed visitor to Benton End. While working for the Red Cross she met Peter O’Malley who had been invalided out of the Army to a hospital in Wales. They married in 1945.

early summer flowers in white room

(Early Summer Flowers in white room 1995 gouache 57 x 49 cm £700)

Joan Warburton and Peter O’Malley started their married life in a bed-sitter in Harcourt Terrace, London. Their years living in London were happy ones. Peter taught ceramics at The Royal College of Art for 19 years and they had firm friends in the artistic community, such as Basil and Karin Jonzen, Kenneth Armitage and Jo Moore, Freddie Gore and Robert Buhler, spiced with the occasional, not always welcome visits from the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde. She exhibited in mixed shows such as the Royal Academy, Leicester Galleries and Women’s International and had three solo exhibitions.

chelsea back yard

(Chelsea back yard 1960 oil on canvas 61 x 51 cm £1500) 

In 1969 Peter decided to retire from the Royal College and, given a free hand as to where to settle, Joan Warburton decided to return to “Cedric country”. She bought a house, an old wig-maker’s shop, in Stoke by Nayland and filled the garden with plants and the shop-part of the house with succulents. Back problems had by this time caused her to give up painting in oil - standing to paint at an easel was impossible, but she worked with great energy in watercolour and gouache. She mounted ten successful solo exhibitions over the following twenty years. Peter died in 1994 after a debilitating illness and she died of cancer in 1996. Unlike some of the students, such as Lucy Harwood, Joan Warburton did not become a permanent fixture at Benton End, but it was central to her life and way of looking at the world. This exhibition of her work, together with that of some of the other visitors and students, gives a flavour of that world and how it was.


Click here for list of works

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