Arthur Lett-Haines, known as Lett-Haines, was born in Paddington, London, in 1894, the son of Charles and Frances Laura Esme Lett. Arthur’s parents divorced in 1898 when he was only four. Frances later married S. Sidney Haines, hence Arthur’s hyphenated name. Arthur was educated at St Paul’s School and at the age of 16 went to work and study farming on the farm of Henry Frank of Poslingford, Clare, Suffolk. During the First World War he served in the British Army and immediately afterwards became involved with an artistic group based in Chelsea, which included among its members D H Lawrence, Katharine Mansfield and the Sitwells. In 1916 Lett-Haines married Gertrude Aimée Lincoln at Hailsham, Sussex. Two years later Lett-Haines met Cedric Morris (q.v.), who moved in with them, and the following year Gertrude left for America. Morris and Lett-Haines lived together for the next sixty years.
In 1919-20, with Cedric Morris, he attended the influential Newlyn School of Painting, an artist colony based in Zennor, Cornwall, reminiscent of the Barbizon School. Alfred Munnings was one of its members. There they met one of New Zealand’s most prestigious and influential painters, Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) whom they encouraged to paint in oil (1) and experiment in Post-Impressionism.
Then in 1920 Lett-Haines and Morris moved to Paris and became part of a group of avant-garde artists which included Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom had a major influence on the artist. Lett-Haines also acknowledged Picasso’s influence during the whole of his career. In Paris Lett-Haines studied sculptor at the Académie Colarossi (2), an art school alternative to the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It is also during that period in Paris, in 1926, that Lett-Haines represented British artists at the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. He was the only British artist and in the accompanying catalogue he was described by the important German American collector of modern art Katharine Dreier as ‘the only Englishman’ showing ‘an understanding of what the Modernists claim as their point of view’ (3).
Both Morris and Lett-Haines returned to Britain in 1927 and moved to Suffolk in 1929. In 1937, they founded the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, Suffolk. When the school burnt down two years later (4), at the outbreak of the Second World War, alternative accommodation became necessary and they temporarily moved to a house called The Pound in Higham. A year later a much larger house, called Benton End, became available and they moved there. The house, which was situated on the edge of Hadleigh in Suffolk and known locally as “The Artist's House”, provided an ideal environment for Morris and Lett-Haines who lived there until the end of their lives. They formed a formidable bohemian couple, which made the place very attractive to many (5).
There Lett-Haines, who was called “Father”, was the backbone of the place. He had become friendly with the great French cook Marcel Boulestin (1878-1943) (6) and was himself a great cook. He consequently ran the catering and business side of the place. Many visitors came and stayed, especially in the summer, to see Morris’s collection of irises, a situation Lett-Haines continuously complained about.
At Benton End the teaching was informal. Despite being mainly responsible for the daily running of Benton End and expending much of his energy looking after Morris, Lett-Haines continued to produce a large number of paintings, and later in life, sculpture. He was also known to make constructive comments, perhaps more so than Morris, on students’ paintings. As years passed Benton End tended to lose its original dynamics; however one younger student who worked at Benton End was Maggi Hambling (b.1945), who enrolled at the age of 15. In the early 1960s she formed a close friendship with Lett-Haines who taught and encouraged her. In 1946 along with Morris, Henry Collins, John Nash and Roderic Barrett, Lett-Haines became one of the founder members of Colchester Art Society.
There is snapshot photograph of Lett-Haines with Robert Bevan and Allan Walton taken in the 1920s at the National Portrait Gallery (see link below) and a sandstone portrait sculpture of him by John Skeaping (1901-1980) dated 1933, when Skeaping joined the artists’ colony at Benton End. Bernard Reynolds (q.v.) also produced a resin and glass fibre portrait of the artist in 1973 and Maggi Hambling painted several portraits of him, including Lett Dreaming and Lett Evening which can be seen on the BBC website Your Paintings (see link below). The Tate Gallery owns two works by the artist (see link below).
Lett-Haines was a painter and sculptor who experimented in many different media and considered himself an English surrealist. His work, which was more complex, esoteric and sophisticated, was less accessible than that of Cedric Morris. He was readier to experiment, especially in the 1920s. His work was also very advanced for the time especially in England. This particular painting, executed in 1922, with its strong linear elements, is a testimony of Cubism in the Picasso tradition.
Like many artists influenced by Surrealism, Lett-Haines was profoundly interested in the theories of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and this work, entitled Ducere Duct, deriving from the Latin verb ducere, meaning to lead, guide or move along, recalls the art of such luminaries as Max Ernst, Dali and Magritte in the juxtaposition of human legs rooted to the ground, an elephant’s head and a human foetus. In their efforts to reveal the unconscious, depict the fantastic and reject naturalism, such artists created hallucinatory images which the title of this work appears to evoke as it concentrates on pushing the boundaries of perception and experience.
Pure Abstraction, Arabesque No. 1
This painting, painted much later than the other two paintings in the collection [CAS 6 and 7] and executed when the artist was 71, is perhaps reminiscent of the travels Lett-Haines carried out in the 1920s in North Africa (Tunisia and Morocco) during Lett’s and Morris’s period of residence in Paris . North Africa left a great impression on the artist who found there refreshing sources of inspiration for his compositions. What we see here is an exercise in design combining colour and forms as he would have experienced in a mosque in Tunis for example. Lett kept several postcards from North Africa in his archives. These can now be seen at the Tate archives.
1974 The Minories, Colchester, Petites Sculptures 1965-74 – Paintings and Drawings 1919-74;
2002 The Minories, Colchester, East Anglia Art Fund (sponsor), Cedric Morris & Lett Haines: Teaching Art & Life
BEECHEY, James, With Cedric Morris, Arthur Lett-Haines and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, catalogue of Kathleen Hale 1898-2000 – Memorial Exhibition, Michael Parkin Fine Art and the Redfern Gallery, 2001
BENEZIT, Dictionary of artists, Paris: Grϋnd, 2006, vol. 8, p. 913
BUCKMAN, David, Dictionary of artists in Britain since 1945, Art Dictionaries Ltd, Bristol, 1998, p. 526
REYNOLDS, Gwynneth, GRACE, Diana, Benton End Remembered: Cedric Morris, Arthur Lett-Haines and the East Anglian Society, Unicorn Press Publishing Group, 2002
THORNTON, Nicholas; WATERS, Helen, Cedric Morris & Lett-Haines, exhibition catalogue, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Edinburgh, 2002
The Times, Deaths, March 02, 1978
(1) Frances Hodgkins was the first woman to be appointed instructor in sculpture at Colarossi’s Academy in Paris in 1911-12. She stayed at Benton End where Lett-Haines and Morris encouraged and supported her.
(2) An art school founded by the Italian sculptor Filippo Colarossi (1841-1906). Camille Claudel, the sculptor pupil of Rodin, was one of its students and Henry Moore attended life drawings classes there in 1922.
(3) K S Dreier, International Exhibition of Modern Art, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1926, p. 12
(4) It is said that it was Lucien Freud who started the fire by setting fire to a paper bin.
(5) Lett-Haines was loud and full of fun as opposed to Morris who was more quiet and gentlemanly and spent most of his time in the garden which Lett rarely visited. There was tension between them and in the winter months they travelled abroad separately.
(6) Xavier Marcel Boulestin popularised French cuisine in England and had great influence on cookery experts like Elizabeth David. He had a remarkable career in London and owned the most expensive restaurants in London in the 1920s.