Sir Cedric Morris, Bt

Landscape of Shame


Not on display

Sir Cedric Morris, Bt 1889–1982
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 756 × 1002 mm
frame: 905 × 1164 × 80 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987

Display caption

Morris had painted birds quite often since the 1920s. Here he shows a variety of dead or dying birds in a desolate landscape. A rook and moorhen are in the foreground, and a male partridge dominates the centre of the composition. Morris made the work in response to the devastating effects of certain crop-sprays and pesticides on the bird population. Some of his friends have recalled his anger and frustration at the pitiful destruction of birdlife around his home at Benton End in Suffolk. The ill-effects of some pesticides were first noticed in the mid-1950s. By the end of the decade large numbers of birds were found dead in the fields.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04996 Landscape of Shame c.1960

Oil on canvas 756 × 1002 (29 3/4 × 39 1/2).
Not inscribed
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987
Prov: Bt from the Trustees of the Cedric Morris Estate 1987
Exh: Sir Cedric Morris, Blond Fine Art, April–May 1981 (22); Cedric Morris, Tate Gallery, March–May 1984 (95, repr. p.12 in col.)
Lit: Richard Morphet, Cedric Morris, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1984, pp.68, 118, repr.p.12 (col.); Christopher Neve, ‘The Outsider: Cedric Morris as Painter and Gardener’, Country Life, 26 April 1984, p.1167; Michael Buhler, ‘Songs of Praise’, Spectator, 28 April 1984, p.33; Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1987–8, 1988, p.12, repr.; Ian Collins, A Broad Canvas: Art in East Anglia since 1880, 1990, p.96, repr. p.95 (col.)

Landscape of Shame’ depicts dead or dying birds on an open expanse of brown earth, possibly a ploughed field, under a blue sky with high, grey clouds. In the foreground are two large birds, a rook, painted in blue-black, to the left, and a moorhen, painted in grey-black, to the right. Behind the rook are, from left to right, a fieldfare(?) and a female chaffinch(?). Dominating the centre of the composition is a male partridge, with dark red markings on its smokey grey underside. Immediately to the left of the partridge is a female blackbird, and behind it are woodpigeons. Behind the moorhen and near to the partridge is an unidentified bird, possibly another woodpigeon, and, to the right, a thrush and a sparrowhawk. Directly above the breast of the partridge in the centre of the painting is a black-headed white gull, as is another bird to its right. In the distance are rows upon rows of dead or dying birds, as far as the eye can see, a scene of desolation which is in marked contrast to the serenity of the sky above.

The artist did not date T04996, although in conversation with friends and visitors he always described it as having been painted at the time of the controversy surrounding the devastating effects on the bird population of certain cropsprays and pesticides. Millie Hayes, who helped Morris and his companion Arthur Lett Haines at their home at Benton End, Suffolk, from the mid-1960s, told Richard Morphet, curator of the 1984 Tate Gallery retrospective, that the picture was already in existence when she arrived in the mid-1960s (Morphet 1984, p.118). In a letter to the compiler dated 29 September 1992 Dr R.Sauven-Smith wrote, ‘1960 was the year I married + the painting was certainly in existence then’. The artist Maggi Hambling told the compiler on 26 October 1994 that she saw the painting hanging in the ‘eats room’ at Benton End in the spring of 1960 when, aged fifteen, she attended the art school run by Morris and Haines. She recalled Morris's impassioned discussion of the painting's subject, and said that she thought that the work would have been executed shortly before, certainly within the previous twelve months.

The ill-effects of the use of certain pesticides were first noticed in the mid-1950s, but it became a source of controversy and complaint from 1958 when large numbers of birds were found dead in the fields. In Farming and Wildlife (1981, pp.118–19) Kenneth Mellanby provides an account of the discovery of the side effects of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), first used widely in the 1940s, and other related chemicals:

It was not until the mid-1950s that there was any serious worry about the dangers of DDT and the other chlorinated hydrocarbons... In Britain in 1958 and over the next few years, large numbers of seed-eating birds were found dead in the fields in spring, and there were disturbing reports of a fall in the numbers of breeding peregrines and sparrowhawks, possible damage to golden eagles and buzzards, and numerous deaths of foxes and badgers. Eventually this was found to be caused by seed corn which had been dressed with aldrin or dieldrin as a protection against attack to the young seedlings ... The insecticides were first broadcast over the whole area of the crop, using a kilo or more to the hectare. It was then decided to stick a minute amount of insecticide onto the grain, so as to concentrate it just at the spot where the pest attacked ... unfortunately it was in just the situation where it was ingested by seed-eating birds.

The author continued (p.120):

A number of effects on wild birds were detected when the chlorinated hydrocarbons were widely used. Birds laid eggs with thin shells, which were more easily broken in the nest. Eagles and buzzards ceased to breed for several years ... Breeding seemed to be particularly susceptible to residues of DDT, which had previously been thought to be less toxic.

Mellanby's account provides the main facts about the problem addressed in Morris's ‘Landscape of Shame’, as they later emerged. However, at the time when Morris is likely to have painted T04996, that is, in 1960 or immediately before, the situation was not well understood nor was there much public debate about it. A partial survey of local Suffolk newspapers shows that, in the late 1950s at least, there was a great deal of excitement about the potential benefits of chemical fertilisers and cropsprays in this farming-dominated county. In 1958, for example, when problems with wildlife were beginning to be noticed, the Suffolk Free Press, ran an article titled, ‘Harvests - A Story of Big Increase: Dreams Come True’ (9 July 1958, pp.18–19), which was written by a ‘technical adviser’ of Fisons, the Suffolk-based manufacturer of fertilisers. In 1960 the Times carried some reports of concern regarding the poisoning of wildlife, principally foxes, but with little or no discussion of birds. A mention of bird deaths is found almost incidentally in an article titled, ‘Mystery of Fox Deaths Still Unsolved’: ‘it has been suggested that pigeons - “they're dropping dead from the skys (sic)” - might be carrying a disease... Some hint darkly at “certain new poisons”’ (18 April 1960, p.4). Another article suggested that the issue was polarising the opinions of those who lived in the countryside: ‘There is much agitation afoot these days over the spraying of farm and market garden crops. Two extreme voices are frequently heard: there is a kind of Brethren of the Soil movement, calling for the abolition of toxic sprays, and there is the “scientific” farmer, whose retort is that toxic sprays are perfectly safe if used strictly in accordance with the makers’ recommendations’ (‘A Plea for Sanity in Crop-Spraying’, 4 April 1960, p.5).

This rather muted discussion of the problem of bird deaths suggests that, if Maggi Hambling and Dr Sauven-Smith are correct in remembering seeing ‘Landscape of Shame’ in 1960, Morris was not responding to public controversy but to what he and like-minded birdlovers saw and felt in a region which was dominated by farming and farming interests.

Although it is not possible to prove when exactly Morris painted ‘Landscape of Shame’, it was in the spring of 1960 that many people living in the countryside became acutely aware of the sheer numbers of birds that were dying. In Silent Spring, which was serialised in the New Yorker in June 1962 and published in Britain in 1963, the American biologist Rachel Carson drew attention to the effects of the growing use of chemicals on both animals and man, using layman's language to address issues which had been regarded hitherto as the province of the agricultural specialist. The book, with its preface by the eminent naturalist Julian Huxley and introduction by Lord Shackleton, became extremely well known, and although it is not known whether Morris ever read it, friends of his testify that he would have been aware of its contents (see letters to the compiler from Monica Bingley dated 22 September 1992 and from Jenny Robinson dated 5 October 1992).

In a chapter titled ‘And No Birds Sing’ Carson correctly identified the cause of the bird deaths as the introduction c.1956 of a dual-purpose treatment of seed, incorporating both common fungicides and dieldrin, aldrin or heptachlor to combat soil insects. ‘Thereupon the situation changed for the worse’, she wrote.

In the spring of 1960 a deluge of reports of dead birds reached British wildlife authorities ... ‘The place is like a battlefield’, a landowner in Norfolk wrote. ‘My keeper has found innumerable corpses, including masses of small birds - chaffinches, greenfinches, linnets, hedge sparrows, also house sparrows ... the destruction of wildlife is quite pitiful.’ A gamekeeper wrote: ‘My partridges have been wiped out with the dressed corn, also some pheasants and all other birds, hundreds of birds have been killed ... As a lifelong gamekeeper it has been a distressing experience for me. It is bad to see pairs of partridges that have died together’.

In a joint report, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection for Birds described some 67 kills of birds - a far from complete listing of the destruction that took place in the spring of 1960. Of these 67, 59 were caused by seed dressings, 8 by toxic sprays.

A new wave of poisoning set in the following year. The death of 600 birds on a single estate in Norfolk was reported to the House of Lords, and 100 pheasants died on a farm in North Essex. It soon became evident that more counties were involved than in 1960 (34 compared with 23). Lincolnshire, heavily agricultural, seemed to have suffered most, with reports of 10,000 birds dead. But destruction involved all of agricultural Britain, from Angus in the north to Cornwall in the south, from Anglesey in the west to Norfolk in the east.

In the spring of 1961 concern reached such a peak that a special committee of the House of Lords made an investigation of the matter, taking testimony from farmers, landowners, and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and of various governmental and non-governmental agencies concerned with wildlife. ‘Pigeons are suddenly dropping out the sky dead’, said one witness. ‘You can drive a hundred or two hundred miles outside London and not see a kingle kestrel’, reported another. ‘There has been no parallel in the present century, or at any time so far as I am aware, [this is] the biggest risk to wildlife and game that ever occurred in the country’, officials of the Nature Conservancy testified.

(Carson 1963, pp.101–2)

As a result of such enquiries and reports, various measures were taken to stop the use of the offending chemicals. In 1962 the Advisory Committee on Pesticides recommended that pesticides be used only in the autumn, when birds had other sources of food. Eventually, the use of DDT, dieldrin and aldrin was severely restricted in Britain, although not banned until 1981. However, the damage done by the pesticides proved longlasting. In a letter to the Times dated 26 October 1967, R.E.Podmore in Tonbridge, Kent, reported:

An average of 30 bird species used to breed on my farm-sanctuary. By 1961 the successful number had been halved, and that figure did not include frogs, stoats, useful and beautiful insects, etc., all missing. Since then we have recovered five bird species, but nightingales, wrynecks, partridges, hawks, owls and most song birds are diminished, or still absent from many of their local haunts.

Nearly twenty years later, it was reported in the Times that sparrowhawks - significantly, one of the birds in the middle distance of ‘Landscape of Shame’- were still suffering from the effects of pesticides used in the 1950s and 1960s. The digestive systems of birds were less well equipped to break down chemical residues than those of mammals, and consequently, sparrowhawks, who fed on small birds rather than mammals, absorbed a significantly greater does of the damaging residues than, say, mammal-eating kestrels. Nonetheless, sparrowhawks were beginning to recolonise areas from which they had been eliminated (Hugh Clayton, ‘Birds of Prey Defeat Pesticide Threat’, Times, 28 Dec. 1984).

Friends of the artist recall Morris's anger at what he saw happening to the birdlife in the countryside around Benton End. In a letter to the compiler, dated 24 September 1992, the author Ronald Blythe wrote:

I do know how upset Cedric used to get about some of the horrors of modern agriculture. The Suffolk fields were all around him and the abuses of the 1960s onwards were not far from his doorstep. And, of course, he had a very personal feeling for birds and flowers especially, both victims of the new chemical farming. There was a lot of anger about what was going on in the East Anglian countryside at that time, letters in the local papers, growth of nature protection societies, etc. It is likely that Cedric found poisoned birds in the field near Benton End, or was told about them by local friends. He possessed a fine sense of outrage.

The painter Glyn Morgan, who was a regular visitor to Benton End in this period, wrote in a letter dated 18 September 1992:

I remember very well Cedric showing us the picture and being very impressed by its austerity and desolation. It was certainly painted with a deep sense of anger and frustration. Cedric liked animals and plants much better than people on the whole, and spending most of his days out of doors he was in a better position than most to observe the slaughter. He wanted very much to call the painting ‘Homage to [named manufacturer of pesticides]’, but was eventually persuaded by Lett Haines that it might result in a lawsuit.

In conversation with the compiler on 25 October 1994 John Norris Wood, a painter and naturalist who studied with Morris for periods between 1955 and 1960, recalled how he often picked up scores of dead or dying birds in the fields around Benton End. Although he would try to help those birds who were still alive, none ever recovered. He remembered hearing Morris say that he intended to paint a similar picture on the subject of myxomatosis and its effects on the rabbit population, though it is not known whether he ever did so.

In a letter dated 7 September 1992 Maudie O'Malley (the painter Joan Warburton) wrote to the compiler that she recalled that the artist had told her that he had been prompted to paint ‘Landscape of Shame’ by a particular rail journey: ‘He told me as he was returning from London by train one day he noticed lots of dead birds lying in the fields by the railway (from Liverpool St. station to Colchester) and when he had finished it, he called it with some name like “In Honour of [named manufacturer of pesticides]”, altho' in honour wasn't exactly the word.’ Regarding the artist's anger with the chemical manufacturers, Morphet wrote in his 1984 catalogue (p.118):

Morris, who bequeathed £5,000 to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, was enraged both by the fate of the birds and by the fact that the same chemicals killed their eggs too. He considered titling this picture in ironical ‘homage’ to a named national manufacturer of pesticides. He deliberately included in it a wide range of birds, including partridge, in order to ram the point home both to the general public and to farmers.

In the early part of his career Morris executed a number of paintings featuring birds. ‘Halycon’, 1927 (repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1984, p.30 in col.). for example, combines a female nude with a kingfisher. ‘Greenland Falcon’, 1928 (repr. ibid., p.80 in col.) shows a falcon catching a bird on the wing. ‘Sparrowhawks’, 1929 (repr. ibid., p.46 in col.) depicts dead birds hung with string from a nail. Until 1929 Morris lived in London where his studio was filled with plants and animals; in 1928 he was photographed painting with a pet rabbit on his shoulder (repr. ibid., p.33). Critics commented on his gift for rendering birds. In 1926 one reviewer wrote that Morris's bird paintings were ‘boldly formalised yet intensely real - as if the artist had some secret understanding with the kind’ (Times, Feb. 1926, quoted ibid., p.83). Another claimed, ‘there has risen among us... a modern painter who can paint birds - not photographically, but with the sympathy and succinctness that we associate with early Chinese masters. Mr Morris paints living, breathing, flying birds, not coloured reproductions of stuffed carcases’ (‘D.F.C.’ in Manchester Guardian, 9 May 1928, quoted ibid., p.32). From 1929 to 1940 Morris and Haines lived at Pound Farm, Higham in Suffolk. A student visitor recalled in 1982 that Morris allowed a variety of birds into his studio: ‘there was Ptolemy the peacock strutting about, Cockey the yellow crested cockatoo, Rubio the macaw and ducks - Muscovy and mallard. These parrots flew about the garden, hung in the trees and stumped in and out of the house’ (quoted in Morphet 1984, p.48). Only Rubio the macaw moved with Morris and Haines to Benton End, near Hadleigh in 1940, and Morris was to paint fewer works featuring birds in the years that followed than he had done in the interwar period. One of these was ‘Peregrine Falcons’, 1942, now in the collection of the Tate Gallery (repr. Tate Gallery Report 1988–90, 1990, p.74). Morris also used eggs in a number of still life compositions, including ‘The Eggs’, 1944 (T 06522, repr. Tate Gallery Report 1990–2, 1992, p.16 in col.). Regarding another painting featuring eggs, ‘Unstill Life’, 1943 (repr. Morphet 1984, p.83), Morphet wrote in a note to the compiler dated 12 November 1994, ‘I believe that the title ... refers to the fact that eggs contain life that has the potential to develop into the form of birds’.

Morris's love of birds was part of a wider interest in animals and plants. His garden at Benton End was visited by horticultural specialists and garden lovers, and he became known as a plantsman. Morphet (ibid., p.66) writes: ‘The centre of Cedric's interest was species plants, and their varieties; that is, plants found growing in the wild rather than cultivars. But, in phases, both old-fashioned and species roses, bulbous plants and iris-breeding became consuming passions.’ As well as teaching his own students at Benton End, Morris was a consultant in the 1950s and 1960s at the Field Study Centre, Flatford Mill, on a course that embraced ornithology, plant ecology, the study of animals, local history, geology and art.

Morris displayed an early awareness of environmental issues in ‘Shags’, 1938 (repr. ibid., p.81 in col.). This depicts three shags on a rocky outcrop by the sea with an oil tanker at the horizon. The artist told many people (including John Bensusan-Butt, who reported it in an article of 1959) that the birds in the painting were angry at the threat of pollution represented by an oil tanker on the horizon (ibid., p.112).

In 1926 Morris was provoked by a news story to paint a work which, in its condemnation of an injustice, may be seen as anticipating the element of protest in ‘Landscape of Shame’. This work was ‘The Entry of Moral Turpitude into New York Harbour’ (repr. ibid., p.31 in col.), which dealt with the humiliating refusal by the United States immigration authorities to allow an Englishwoman to enter the country on her arrival at New York by sea. The reason given was that she was guilty of ‘moral turpitude’ because she had been divorced by her husband and was accompanied by the man cited as corespondent.

It is not clear when T04996 first became known by its current title with which it was first exhibited at a retrospective exhibition at Blond Fine Art in 1981. Maggi Hambling feels that it may not have been titled in 1960 when she first saw the painting, and suggests that it was likely that Lett Haines invented the title at some later time. In his note to the compiler Morphet also remarked that there was some ambiguity regarding the work's title when he visited the artist: ‘The word I seem to remember being associated with this painting in conversation when I first saw it on 16 December 1980 ... was “Shame”. I can't be certain of the preceding words, “Landscape of”, as having been spoken on that visit’. On the back of a photograph of the painting taken at the time, Morphet had written simply ‘Shame!’, and, coincidentally, the work was described as ‘“Shame”’ in the estate duty valuation prepared in 1982, although it had already been exhibited the year before with the longer title, presumably with the approval of the artist.

The frame in which it is currently displayed was chosen by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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