Paris: The City of Love Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines in the roaring twenties. By Ellie Smith
‘Works of art express, define and mould experience and ideas, and in the process make them visible and available. They thus enable people to recognise experience as shared and to confront definitions of that experience.’ – Richard Dyer
Paris: the City of Love. A city of immense importance to the daring modernists Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines not only for its connection with continental Modernism, the Parisian avant-garde and its notable clientele, but for its paramount importance in fostering a loving relationship which would last a lifetime.
Morris and Lett-Haines first met around Armistice night, 11 November 1918. Lett-Haines and his wife Aimée had thrown a raucous party at 2 Carlyle Square, Chelsea, which attracted artists, writers and dancers in abundance. One such artist was the young, and somewhat coy, Cedric. The two almost immediately fell in love, despite Lett-Haines's marriage to Aimée and Morris’ reticent demeanour. According to curator and writer Hugh St. Clair, Morris was ‘immediately taken with Lett’s acerbic wit and what in future he would refer to as his intellect, sometimes in admiration, sometimes sarcastically’, confessing to Lett-Haines that, before meeting him he had been asleep and now he had ‘sprung to life’.
Enraptured by adoration, the two men moved to Paris in 1920. They rented a flat in Montmartre on Rue Lepic, situated near the scandalous Chez Ma Cousine behind the Moulin Rouge, before moving to a first-floor apartment overlooking the courtyard on Rue Liancourt in Montparnasse. During this time, Paris was a centre of freedom, expression and relative tolerance, particularly in comparison with England where homosexuality was illegal. As artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson charmingly articulated, Paris ‘was electric with renovation – at every turn was genius and transformative.’ Here, Morris and Lett-Haines were free to immerse themselves in metropolitan life, in the intimate company of vibrant, like-minded individuals.
Fully submerged within continental modernist discourse, Morris absorbed his Parisian surroundings, sketching in cafés across the city, in a stylistic representational pursuit of metropolitan life. Morris’ depictions of modern life at this time are abundant in their manipulation of spatial construction and colour distribution, which relies on visual tensions created by merging and contrasting colours.
Lawrence Hendra notes that; ‘This experimentation with form coincides with the emergence of Surrealism in Paris in the early 1920s, when philosophical ideas about consciousness and the ordering of thoughts and expressions were beginning to find representation in the visual arts. Although the influence of Surrealism on Morris is undeniable, there are some distinguishable idiosyncrasies that make his interpretation of the movement unique.’
In the heart of Montparnasse, intermingling between La Rotonde and the Dome, the two main cafés frequented by artists and collectors such as Fernand Leger, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein and Peggy Guggenheim, was the Academie Delecluse. By this point closed, the School’s painting studio was available to rent – Morris and many others rented this space and, in Lett-Haines words; ‘became (his) studio and such was a meeting place for many of his contemporaries … many gay parties of the period were enacted there.’
Morris and Haines established themselves as the English gentlemen of the Paris art scene, celebrated by many and even envied by some; ‘Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, anyone, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure.’ – Ernest Hemmingway
Come what may, the bohemian and accepting City of Love nurtured Morris and Lett-Haines’ relationship, enabling a lifelong partnership and lifetime of devotion.