A tale of two halves: dual exhibitions celebrating the art of Cedric Morris to run in tandem

A tale of two halves: dual exhibitions celebrating the art of Cedric Morris to run in tandem

Next week, two exhibitions celebrating the achievements of the artist and plantsman Cedric Morris (1889-1982) will open in London. Perhaps best known for teaching a young Lucian Freud, Morris, who counted avant-garde artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood among his friends, has been rather neglected in recent years.

The first is a non-selling exhibition of his distinctive exotic flower paintings at the Garden Museum, sponsored by Philip Mould, the co-presenter of BBC’s Fake or Fortune. The second, at Mould’s gallery in Pall Mall, will show Morris’s more conventional landscape paintings, and all are for sale. It’s a clever piece of marketing on Mould’s part, where the fortune of one depends on the continued success of the other.

May Flowering Irises No2, Sir Cedric Morris, 1935 CREDIT: CEDRIC MORRIS ESTATE/ © PHILIP MOULD & COMPANY

According to the Blouin Art Sales Index, average prices for Morris’s pictures at auction have risen from about £3,500 in 2014 to almost £57,000 in 2017 – that’s an increase of 1,500 per cent, a figure virtually unheard of outside the hottest sectors of the contemporary art market.

Looking more closely at the figures, there have been two different markets at work – one for Morris’s flower paintings, which have raced ahead, like tulip mania, and another for his landscapes, which have lagged behind.

Average prices for Cedric Morris’s pictures from 1977 to 2017 CREDIT: BLOUIN ART SALES INDEX

As a celebrated plant breeder, Morris was able to bring an unusual degree of expertise to his floral paintings. But they are much more than botanical illustrations: seething populations of exotically coloured heads and bodies, swaying together in one unreal/surreal whole.

Mould only discovered Morris shortly before he made a Fake or Fortune programme about the artist and Lucian Freud in 2016. He bought his first work in March of that year – a Tunisian landscape, for just £5,000. A month later, however, he paid £57,000 at Sworders auctioneers, in Essex, for a 1934 flower painting titled Easter Bouquet, which is in the Garden Museum show.

Italian Hill Town, Sir Cedric Morris, 1922, Previously in the collection of David Bowie. CREDIT: ©PHILIP MOULD & COMPANY

That record stuck for a mere two days, when Bond Street dealer Richard Green spotted the glorious painting Summer Garden Flowers at a sale in Sussex. Estimated at £10,000, Green bought the 1924 painting for £87,000.

And then, at the sale of David Bowie’s personal art collection, which was held at Sotheby’s that November, it was the turn of Morris’s landscapes, for which both Green and Mould paid £50,000 – double the previous record.

Prices for Morris’s flower paintings continue to rise. Last August, the Mayfair gallery MacConnal-Mason paid a record £168,000 in Australia for a flower painting with wood warblers, now reportedly on sale for £300,000. Meanwhile, Green says he has sold all but one of his Morris flower paintings, for prices up to £200,000.

Connemara Landscape, Sir Cedric Morris, 1936 CREDIT: ©PHILIP MOULD & COMPANY

Of course, compared to the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish artists Jan Brueghel the Elder, Ambrosius Bosschaert and Jan Davidsz. de Heem, whose best flower paintings fetch up to £4 million at auction, or Monet’s atmospheric water lilies, one of which sold for nearly £41 million in 2008, and Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, which made $54 million in 1989, Morris is a minnow. He belongs instead to the group of more modestly priced modern British artists centred round St Ives in the Twenties.

Mould, though, believes the market for Morris’s paintings has already peaked and that the future lies with his landscapes. Besides having nearly 30 of them in his gallery, priced between £6,000 and £90,000, two weeks ago he set a new record when he paid nearly £60,000 at a sale in Dorset for a 1929 Somerset view that had previously belonged to Evelyn Waugh’s elder brother, Alec.

Surprisingly, then, for a dealer who has invested so much (four flower paintings in the Garden Museum show cost him at least £300,000), Mould is backing a hunch. Only time will tell whether it will bear fruit.

Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall, 18 April — 20 July; philipmould.com. Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman, 18 April — 22 July; gardenmuseum.org.uk.