Book Review: The Colors of Reality by Rory McEwen
— Frank Ippolitto
First it is the artwork. Always we will come back to the artwork. It is introduced boldly on the front cover with a striking rendering of a single leaf, Viburnum x carlcephalum. The artist has captured a moment in transition; the leaf sits at the cusp between summer and fall. Greens give way to reds and purples. There are signs that the leaf is losing its battle with tiny creatures, who leave behind trace indications of their passage. The northern light, soft and cool, catches a few areas of smooth, waxy texture and invites our touch. The rendering is achieved through use of watercolor on vellum. Like so much of this artist’s work employing this medium, the resulting image is filled with nuanced detail that seems to sit atop the very page it is printed on. This leaf has given up it’s story under the watchful eye of an artist who is clearly trained in the highest order of observational drawing. We run our finger over the image (how can we not?) and we open the book.
The artist's name is Rory McEwen; for many readers in the US, this may be the first time we will have heard his name. This fact is as startling as anything one will come to learn in this beautifully printed overview of Mr. McEwen’s life and work. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the fact that Mr. McEwen’s botanical illustration career flourished in the UK over 30 years ago. Thumb through the volume and prepare to be engaged by the range of subject and impressed by the treatment that appears under one’s fingers.
Holding a book in one’s right hand, it is natural to thumb through the pages of an oversized paperback from back to front. My first perusal of this volume was filled with many detours, as I stopped and explored random pages while fanning through the chapters. Here, a wild tangle of grasses rendered in loose watercolor strokes captures the unruly nature of nature itself. Here, a study of a yellow onion sits on the page, layers of translucent skin peeling off into the northern light, as 3-dimensional as it would be if sitting upon the kitchen cutting board. Here, a full habit of a Crown Imperial that would not look out of place in a gallery featuring art from the Age of Enlightenment.
By the time I reached the middle of the book, I was forming a first impression of perhaps who this fellow might be: an artist, steeped in a pursuit of botanical studies, taking his skills to a level only possible through a lifetime of singular focus. Then, as I continued leafing towards the front cover, I came across the scattering of vintage photographs that fill the opening chapters. In one, Rory plays an acoustic guitar with a band on a soundstage of a television studio. In another Rory is posing with Ravi Shankar, the maestro of Indian sitar. (There are more pictures of him performing music in this book than there are of him at a drawing table.) Scanning the captions, I can see sentence fragments that mention Rory in association with Beatle George Harrison, American blues legend Lead Belly, and the Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison.
Who WAS this guy? Pulled away from the pages of artwork, I began to read the opening chapters of the book and came to learn about a most fascinating life.
Rory McEwen (1932-1982) was a Scottish artist and musician. Home-schooled in the Palladian mansion of Marchmont House in the Scottish Borders area of Scotland, he went on to earn a degree from Trinity College Cambridge, which holds among its alumni such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr.
By all accounts, Rory was inspired by his forays into nature from a young age, after a French governess taught Rory and his siblings the art of observational drawing. He channeled that fascination into “painting flowers” from about the age of 8. His great-grandfather was noted botanical illustrator John Lindley, so the seed for this interest may have been planted generations earlier. But his creative endeavors were manifold, and he was soon pulled away from rendering plants by his deeper love for music.
At Cambridge, his skills as a botanical artist were known by those around him. But then, until the mid ‘60s’, McEwen’s life and career were centered solidly around music. He and his brother Alexander carved out a musical niche in the UK, having embraced and mastered what was, at the time, the obscure music of American R&B (rhythm and blues.) In particular, Rory had found a deep connection to the songs of the blues guitarist Huddie “Lead Belly” Leadbetter, whose powerful rhythm and slide work on the acoustic 12-string is the stuff of legend. In the decades to follow, bands as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana would cover his music. But in the 1950s UK, Leadbetter’s sound was a complete outlier.
Leadbetter’s raw blues and Woody Guthrie’s depression era folk songs might have seemed an odd fit for a well-to-do Scot. However Rory and his brother would regularly perform them all, along with a mix of Scottish ballads, on a nightly BBC showcase Tonight. Rory’s passion for his art and his attention to nuances of technique, all that would later serve to elevate his botanical artwork to a higher plane, disarmed those who might be struck by his lack of self-irony in delivery. Reading about the arc of his life, it is clear that he always had each foot planted solidly in two or more very different worlds.
A further example of this dichotomy could be seen in the McEwen Brothers' trip to the US in 1956. While in New York City, they stayed uptown in the posh home of one of the Astors. At the same time they reached out to—and were welcomed by—the burgeoning blues scene downtown. Rory and his brother “Eck” would venture by subway down to the East Village and spend long evenings jamming around smoky kitchen tables with future blues legends, such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Their US road trip culminated months later back in NYC with performances by the McEwen Brothers on none other than the Ed Sullivan Show.
Van Morrison would later cite Rory as a huge influence on his playing, as did Eric Clapton and others. But the most fascinating details about this aspect of McEwen’s life emerge when looking at the community of artists and musicians that he and his wife, Romana, fostered when they essentially turned their London home into an artist salon. The book mentions, in passing, a party that they threw for Bob Dylan during Dylan’s first visit to the UK in early 1963. A short vignette sits the Everly Brothers down with John Lennon, trading blues riffs in the drawing room. However the friendship and collaboration between George Harrison and Ravi Shankar may well be the most far reaching cross-pollination that the McEwens’ home engendered. George and Ravi sat long hours on the living room rug, student and teacher. It was in this rarified and electric atmosphere that Rory passed through Zelig-like. He had left the world of London folk music when it became polarized by politics. By the time the waves of British Invasions crashed upon the US shore, Rory was remembered mostly by those whom he had influenced. The music scene had moved on.
While he was hosting parties for rock stars and playwrights, he was forging deeper connections to his other love. Rory had never stopped painting botanical subjects, and he now returned to this endeavor with renewed passion. Paintings from this period reveal an artist pushing his technique while also pushing the boundaries of convention. Indeed, his social circle also brought him into the orbit of London’s avant-garde art scene, where he was welcomed, albeit as a quirky painter of old-school subject matter. Experimenting with light, Rory also began to break beyond 2 dimensions and developed a series of sculptures made of glass, steel, and polymer.
A spirit of experimentation rubbed off as Rory began to explore placing his botanical subjects off-center, using negative space in far more creative and dramatic ways. In 1972 McEwen’s botanicals were exhibited at London’s Redfern Gallery (of contemporary British art). This show is cited by many botanical artists as the show that opened the door to a more progressive approach to the depiction of plants.
While Rory explored watercolor on a variety of substrates, it is his work on vellum that is by far the high point of his career and examples of these stand out across the pages of this book. As a number of our readers may know, vellum is made of calf skin. Water-based media will sit atop its surface upon drying. This offers the artist an opportunity to develop a series of layers that can impart depth. The vellum itself is translucent and McEwen seemed to delight in teasing out a sense of luminosity in his botanical studies.
Renderings of onions (see p. 21) and red peppers, found within the vegetable series, seem to glow from the inside out. It is not hard to draw a direct line between the modern sculpture he created, with light passing through selected areas, and his use of sheets of vellum. Although this luminous quality would be all but impossible to reproduce photo-mechanically, this book does a wonderful job presenting McEwen’s work, with many of the plates filling its oversized pages.
This book was produced in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition that was mounted in 2013 at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The Kew show was the second major retrospective of McEwen's botanical work, the first being held 25 years earlier in 1988. The printing quality is top notch; the colors are rich and nuanced.
Chapter 3: Rory McEwen as a Botanical Painter, by Martyn Rix, is comprised of 15 sections filled with color plates that are arranged mostly by subject matter. The chapter runs well over 150 pages and covers McEwen’s most prolific stretch from the mid-sixties to his untimely death in 1982.
If I have one criticism of the book, it would be how the writers each spoke of Rory McEwen as if the reader already knew of their subject. It created a certain disconnect in this reader that took repeated visits to the various chapters—all written by separate authors adding their personal perspective to the overall portrait—to see the consensus of the many narratives that are woven together here. As I would come to learn, the superlatives used early and often were more than warranted in describing McEwen’s unique mix of talents. But in my first pass through the pages of The Colours of Reality, I would scratch my head about how someone of this pedigree—both musical and artistic—could have passed so thoroughly under my radar.
And so again we come back to the cover artwork Viburnum x carlcephalum. It can be found inside the book within Section 13. The “leaf series” has been acknowledged by many as some of McEwen’s strongest work. In the heart of the book there are 18 plates of individual leaves in various stages of decomposition. Each rendering seems to be suspended in time. Rather than lament the degraded state of the subject, the artist has elevated the moment of struggle to one of celebration. It is interesting to note that the paintings in this series are named for the location of where each was found rather than the species of plant being rendered. This suggests that the location—and perhaps associated memories—were being revisited one by one.
It was after internalizing these ideas about McEwen’s later work that I learned that in the months before he had begun the series, he was diagnosed with cancer. The series itself was produced during two years of remission and was cut short by the recurrence of the disease. I am reminded of David Bowie’s final works, which were written and recorded as Bowie was coming to terms with his own mortality. In both cases, a great artist had chosen to explore, in the last days of his life, a greater truth through an art process that had sustained him across a long and varied career. In each case, the artist produced what was arguably his highest achievement.
Rory McEwen, The Colours of Reality, Martyn Rix, editor, was published by The Board of Trustees of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2013 in association with an exhibit of Rory McEwen’s work. A revised edition with additional plates and sections was published in 2015. This review references the later edition. Your Journal editors are extremely grateful to Kew Publishing for permission to reproduce these images from the book for this review. The book is currently out of stock at Kew Publishing but is being reprinted and will be available in the Fall 2018. shop.kew.org/kewbooksonline
All images © (the estate of) Rory McEwen, as dated in captions.
Figure 1: The book cover, featuring Kensington Gardens 1
Figure 2: Onion (detail) 1971, watercolor on vellum 22.3 x 25.1 cm
Figure 3: Fritiallary ‘Crown Imperial’ 1965, Fritillaria imperialis, watercolor on vellum, 78.1 x 56.5 cm
Figure 4: Flowering Artichoke (detail), 1971, watercolor on vellum, 52.7 x 73 cm
Figure 5: Auricula 'S.G. Holden' White Edge), 1963, watercolor on vellum, 42 x 31.8 cm
Figure 6: Fritillaria messanensis (detail), 1977, watercolor on vellum, 45 x 34 m
Figure 7: Grasses, 1975, watercolor on paper, 56 x 78.6 cm
Figure 8: Fritillaria messanensis petal, 1981, watercolor on vellum, 25.4 x 20.3 cm
Figure 9: Kensington Gardens 1 (detail without background), 1979, Viburnum x carlcephalum, watercolor on vellum, 21 x 18 cm