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The Shirley Sherwood Gallery
of Botanical Art, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Until 22 September 2013
You saw the world when you went to Tregunter Road [the McEwen home]. Bob Dylan, George Melly, Princess Margaret, The Beatles...
Martin Carthy, folk singer
‘Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality’ is the most successful exhibition ever to be held at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Visited by thousands, the exhibition has reintroduced the vibrant and varied career of the Scottish artist and musician, Rory McEwen (1932–82), and is the first time in 25 years that these works have been presented to the public. The last major retrospective of his work was held a year after his death in 1988 at the Serpentine Gallery.
The exhibition, ranging from the 1950s to early 1980s, highlights the many sides of McEwen’s creative career and reveals his lifelong enquiry into light and colour. Focusing on his remarkable hyper-realist paintings of plants, as well as etchings, collages, and sketch books, it also includes his lesser-known modernist Perspex sculptures and his extraordinary, rarely seen film documentation of Joseph Beuys performing an action, Joseph Beuys in Scotland, 1970. Sharing a love of Scottish folklore and storytelling, McEwen accompanied Beuys to Rannoch Moor and captured the journey on his cine camera. Weather plays an important role in their journey – heavy rains make way for clear blue skies when the two artists arrive at their destination. In the final moments of the film, Beuys sculpts a symbolic shape from gelatine and holds it aloft towards the blazing sunlight. Squeezing the piece repeatedly, the sculpture mimics a pulsing heart.
Perhaps best known for his beautiful flower paintings, McEwen’s techniques have had a far-reaching and lasting impact on the botanical art world. His posthumous 1988 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is considered one of the major turning points in the development of contemporary botanical art having a marked affect on its followers today. A pioneer of painting in watercolour on vellum, four of the gallery spaces is devoted to these studies.
Alongside his art, McEwen was a leading light in the post-war folksong revival. In 1956 he toured the USA with his brother, Alex, and their acoustic guitars, becoming one of the first British acts to appear on the Ed Sullivan TV show. On his return to the UK, McEwen earned national fame as a resident singer on the Tonight programme followed, in the 1960s, by hosting the late-night folk and blues programme, Hullabaloo, a precursor to Later…with Jools Holland, to whom, coincidentally, McEwen’s youngest daughter Christabel is married. Inspired by the iconic American folk and blues musician, Lead Belly, McEwen was arguably the first person to play 12-string acoustic guitar on television in Britain. His guitar will be on show at the exhibition.
To highlight McEwen’s substantial influence, Kew is showing a supporting exhibition, Rory McEwen’s Legacy: Artists Influenced by Him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection, which runs until 4 January 2014 in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery. It shows how McEwen inspired many of today’s artists such as Bridgid Edwards, Coral Guest, and Pandora Sellars.
Accompanying the exhibition is a book Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality, published by Kew (Hardback/paperback: £32/£25). Edited by botanist, plant collector, author and gardener Martyn Rix, the publication presents 150 stunning illustrations of Rory McEwen’s botanical works. His floral subjects are featured alongside essays from figures in the botanical art world and those who knew him, such as Rix, James Fox, Richard Demarco and Dr Shirley Sherwood. The essays cover McEwen’s botanical work, his aptitudes for music, poetry and sculpture, and his influence on, and friendships with, fellow artists and musicians.
Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality features works lent by his family and from private collectors. McEwen’s work can be found in many private and public collections, including the British Museum; V&A; Tate; National Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh; and MOMA, New York.
Painting flowers from the age of eight, McEwen had a talent to represent his subject matter with scientific precision and artistic flair, despite having no formal art school training. From 1964 he devoted himself exclusively to visual art. In his paintings he forged his own interpretation of 20th-century modernism, with individual flowers and vegetables as the subject, while simultaneously experimenting with glass, metal and perspex sculptures and abstracts in oil. Over the course of his career, McEwen developed a distinctive style, using large backgrounds to float his ‘plant portraits’ on vellum. Without shadows and executed in exact, minutely accurate detail, he recorded the imperfect and the unique, as well as the flawless.
Rory McEwen’s interest in contemporary thinking was reflected in his artistic and musical friendships, which both influenced and were influencing. Among his closest artist friends were the Americans Jim Dine, Robert Graham, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly and David Novros. Among close poet friends were the Portuguese Alberto de Lacerda, the Americans Kenneth Koch and Ron Padget, and Scotsman Alastair Reid. In his musical circle he became particular friends of Ramblin' Jack Eliot (Bob Dylan's musical father), and the Rev. Gary Davis. Van Morrison and the folk singer Martin Carthy.