Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality
The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
A stunning showcase of the hugely influential botanical artist’s work
11 May – 22 September 2013
A major summer exhibition will open at Kew Gardens in May 2013, offering visitors a rare chance to see the botanical work and other creative talents of renowned artist and musician, Rory McEwen. Ranging from the 1950s to early 1980s, the exhibition will feature works loaned from his family and private collectors.
McEwen’s work was last exhibited in a major retrospective in 1988, when it was showcased at The Serpentine Gallery. It can now be can be found in private collections across the globe, as well as in the British Museum, V&A, Tate, National Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh, and MOMA, New York, to name but a few.
McEwen died in London in 1982, aged fifty.
A supporting exhibition, Rory McEwen’s Legacy, opening on April 13th 2013, will show how he inspired many of today’s artists in the Shirley Sherwood Collection - Dr Shirley Sherwood is a contemporary botanical art collector who is world renowned for her extensive collection, books, and exhibitions.
Born in 1932 in Berwickshire, Scotland, McEwen began developing his natural aptitude for art whilst at Eton College, where he was taught by the artist and author Wilfred Blunt, who described him as “perhaps the most gifted artist to pass through my hands”. He had a talent to represent his botanical subject matter with scientific precision and artistic flair, and never compromising one for the other. McEwen had no formal art school training, but by the time he finished at Cambridge University, his illustrations had been published in the book Old Carnations and Pinks by the Rev. Oscar C. Moreton, in 1955.
As a young man Rory McEwen combined the careers of a flower painter and a musician, and became a leading light in the post-War folksong revival. In 1956 he and his brother Alex toured the USA with their acoustic guitars, paying their way by performing. Their success can be gauged by the fact that they were among the first British artists to appear on the coast-to-coast Ed Sullivan TV show. During their extended stay they sought out many of their childhood heroes in the world of jazz and blues, and became particular friends of Ramblin' Jack Eliot (Bob Dylan's musical father) and the Rev. Gary Davis.
On his return Rory became one of the resident folksingers on BBC TV's daily Tonight programme and quickly earned national fame. In the early 1960s he and Alex hosted their own live shows to sell-out audiences at three successive Edinburgh Festivals, and at the Festival Hall in London; George Melly, the Clancy Brothers, Dave Swarbrick (later of Fairpot Convention), Bob Davenport and the Americans Dick Farina and Carolyn Hester were among their guests. At that time he also hosted the first late-night TV folk and blues programme Hullabaloo for commercial ATV television, a format which found echoes in Later ... with Jools Holland. Holland is married to McEwen’s youngest daughter, Christabel.
Many younger musicians such as Billy Connolly, Van Morrison and Eric Burdon of the Animals are just some of those who admit to the influence Rory and Alex had on their formative years. Rory, inspired by Leadbelly, was arguably the first person to play 12-string acoustic guitar on TV in Britain.
From 1964 McEwen devoted himself exclusively to visual art, continuing to paint in watercolour on vellum and working with the Rev. Oscar C. Moreton again, he illustrated The Auricula, It’s History and Character and later painted many of the plates for Wilfred Blunt’s Tulips and Tulipomania. 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 objects on unadorned vellum, without shadows, and executed in exact, minutely accurate detail; he saw them as ‘plant portraits’, recording the imperfect and the unique as well as the flawless. Such techniques have had a lasting impact on the botanical art world – the list of artists who visited his 1988 Serpentine show is endless – a number of whom started to use vellum as a result. It was one of the major turning points in the development of contemporary botanical art, and its remarkable renaissance today. As a fine artist he is best known for his botanical work which was shown from the 1960s to the 1980s, in numerous exhibitions both in the USA, Britain and Japan.
In 1970, under the auspices of the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, he collaborated with Joseph Beuys on the historic expedition to The Moor of Rannoch, which was filmed by McEwen. Among his closest artist friends were the Americans Jim Dine, Robert Graham, Brice Marden, Cy Twombley and David Novros. Among close poet friends were the Portuguese Alberto de Lacerda, the Americans Kenneth Koch and Ron Padget, and Scotsman Alastair Reid.
James Fox writes of McEwen’s “grace and charm, a talent for connecting with people and for listening, that was exceptional, and a gift of comedy and invention which made delightful company” and this, combined with his great musical and artistic gifts, attracted a diverse social circle; as the folk singer Martin Carthy recalls “You saw the world when you went to Tregunter Road [the McEwen home]. Bob Dylan, George Melly, Princess Margaret, The Beatles...”. It was typical of Rory McEwen's Scottish internationalism and versatility that, as an off-shoot of his admiration for Indian music, George Harrison took sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar in his house, and that he explored Bhutan in the last days before tourism.
Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality
Edited by Martyn Rix, Kew Publishing, May 2013, Available in hardback/paperback: £32/£25
This book showcases the botanical works of Rory McEwen, ranging from the 1950s to the early 1980s. 150 stunning illustrations of his floral subjects are featured alongside essays from figures in the botanical art world and those who knew him, such as Martyn Rix, James Fox, Richard Demarco and Dr Shirley Sherwood. The essays cover his botanical work, his aptitudes for music, poetry and sculpture, and his influence on, and friendships with, fellow artists and musicians.
Notes to Editors:
For more information please contact the RBG Kew Press Office on 020 8332 5607 or email email@example.com
For more information on the Shirley Sherwood Gallery please go to:
For more information about the Library, Art, and Archives at Kew please go to: http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/garden-attractions-A-Z/Library-art-and-archives.htm
• Admission: Admission prices for 2013 are not yet available. Once finalised, they will be posted here: http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/visit-information/ticket-prices/index.htm
• Visitor information: 020 8332 5655 or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Website: www.kew.org
• Opening hours: 2013 opening times are not yet available. Once finalised, they will be posted here: http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/visit-information/opening-times/index.htm
• Last entry to the Gardens, the Glasshouses, Galleries and the Xstrata Treetop Walkway is 30 minutes before closing
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and RBG Kew’s country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. RBG Kew and its partners have collected and conserved seed from 10 per cent of the world's wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species). The aim is to conserve 25% by 2020, and its enormous potential for future conservation can only be fulfilled with the support of the public and other funders.
Kew receives funding from the UK Government through Defra for approximately half of its income and is also reliant on support from other sources. Without the voluntary monies raised through membership, donations and grants, Kew would have to significantly scale back activities at a time when, as environmental challenges become ever more acute, its resources and expertise are needed in the world more than ever. Kew needs to raise significant funds both in the UK and overseas. Members of the public can support the work of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership by getting involved with the ‘Adopt a Seed, Save a Species' campaign. For £25 an individual can adopt a seed or for £1000 anyone can save an entire species. www.kew.org/adoptaseed
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