Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Flower Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Flower Power

Article excerpt

Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, until 22 September Paul Delvaux Blain|Di Donna, 6 Hill Street, W1, until 17 July By all accounts, Rory McEwen (1932-82) was a remarkable man, hugely talented in several different disciplines (artist, musician, writer) and very much loved by his friends. Grey Gowrie calls him 'a spectacular human being' and writes: 'Even now, 30 years after his death, he lights up the mind of everyone who knew him.' Renowned as a botanical artist, McEwen was also an exceptional musician, specialising in blues and folk, whose mastery of the 12-string acoustic guitar rivalled the legendary Lead Belly. With his brother Alexander, Rory toured across the USA in 1956, becoming one of the first British acts to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. Back in London, Rory became the resident singer on the Tonight programme, later hosting his own late-night TV show. In the 1960s he settled to art with a passion, but never limited himself to painting flowers. He also made abstract Perspex sculptures and worked with Joseph Beuys on a Scottish happening. Among his artist friends were the Americans Jim Dine, Brice Marden and Cy Twombly. McEwen was no ordinary botanical illustrator.

This superb exhibition pays tribute to the diversity of McEwen's prodigious gifts.

A short film offers many insights into the art and the man, and is a good place to start.

Those interviewed range from Jonathan Miller to Glen Baxter (the latter particularly illuminating) and Van Morrison, who cites McEwen as a crucial influence and asks why he's been written out of British musical history. His story sets the imagination alight and the heart soars throughout this ravishing display, from the botanical works to the impressive sculptures, the single rather good large landscape watercolour, the grass paintings and the late collages. But it is the flowers that initially compel the gaze: the roses, anemones, tulips, the closed lily bud like the mysterious smile of a blue whale, and the amazing fritillaries.

Although he had no formal training as an artist, his great-great grandfather on his mother's side was John Lindley, the great botanist, and at Eton he was taught art by Wilfrid Blunt, who was then working on his seminal book The Art of Botanical Illustra-tion. As a young man he evidently enjoyed the distractions of showbiz, but readily shelved his career as a troubadour to focus on painting. His younger brother and noted contributor to these pages, the art critic John McEwen, describes Rory working 'with the concentration of a watchmaker, using a sheaf of the tiniest brushes', and calls him 'a romantic minimalist'. His beautiful paintings of flowers (the word 'exquisite' seems to have been invented to describe them) lift off the vellum into three-dimensional existence, yet he painted them without shadows and their placing on the sheet was essentially a matter of formal considerations. Equally, when he painted auriculas, he showed the root system in a coil of exemplary patternmaking, again emphasising the importance of the abstract to balance the naturalistic.

Perhaps inevitably the late works seem most poignant, especially the series of single leaves evoking particular places. …

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