Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rory McEwen and the Colours of Reality

I've now visited the Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality Exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens three times!  I might just try and fit in a fourth visit before it closes on 22nd September.

Rory McEwen with Auricula,
at the Andre Weil Gallery, Paris (1964)
(Copyright D. Staughton)
Having posted earlier about: The Colours of Rory McEwen and A day in the life of botanical artist Rory McEwen I neglected to complete my review of the exhibition.

In part it was because I wanted to let the exhibition settle in my head - to see what I remembered best about if after I left.

That's in part because of being so blown away with the quality of his work.

Regular readers will also recall the exhibition opened just after I had surgery for cataracts and I was still adjusting to life with new lenses in my eyes but no new glasses (until July) - and the impact that had on my blogging.

Rory McEwen started painting flowers when he was eight years old.  Before he left school at Eton, he had already established a reputation of being a brilliant botanical artist.  While studying at Cambridge University he was also engaged in producing a series of heritage carnations and pinks as a commission - age 21 in 1953 - while also appearing in the Footlights Review with Jonathan Miller!
the first works of a young painter and a remarkable achievement when it is considered that all the drawings were done in the short period of one year.... it is we hope the happy harbinger of further works to comeSacheverell Sitwell 1955
His work is both very precise and exact in botanical terms and at the same time he has the ability to make every painting be a work of art rather than just a botanical illustration.  I have rarely seen botanical art which is technically so well executed.  However it's not of the strictly botanical illustration variety - which is not to say that it's not botanically correct because it is. Rather each work comes across as a work of aesthetics and meditation.

One of the things he is most adept at is his awareness of the importance of empty space and his placement of the subject matter on his support.
probably the greatest living illustrator of natural form
Alistair Mackintosh (wrote prior to McEwen's death age 50 of cancer)
There are some pieces which absolutely take your breath away.  I was completely in awe of the two fritillaries in the main room.  They seemed to have moved into a whole new league of botanical art.

His artwork also has incredible impact because:
  • he is painting on vellum which always makes colour look much richer and more saturated because the paint sits on the surface.  This is particularly useful if your subject is actually quite pale - such as his early series of heritage carnations.  
Rory painted on (vellum) with the concentration of a watchmaker, using a sheaf of the tiniest brushes, a sheet of cartridge paper as a colour tester and a delicate penknife to scrape away errors.  He painted from cut specimens, lying them alongside the Board on which he stretched the skin as tight as a drum.John McEwen
  • some of his flowers and leaves are enlarged while others remain small - and one gasps at the intensity of the structure of petals in some of the roses. I also don't think I've ever seen a better fritillary than the one which is included in the exhibition. It's almost as if you can see the transparency of the petal.  There's also an absolutely stunning beautiful gentian which just left me in total awe of the man.
Fritillaria 'Meleagris' 1981      
Images courtesy of the Estate of Rory McEwen
  • He makes great use of negative space in the design of his paintings
  • He paints like a miniaturist painter but on a much bigger scale.  On some of the earlier paintings you can see the hatching strokes made by tiny brushes - but these are much less evident in later works.  He uses thousands of tiny brush strokes of very dry watercolour to enrich the structure and colour of the leaf or flower
  • His work is very contemporary in terms of his placement of his subject matter on a sheet of vellum. With his later works he demonstrates vividly how allowing an image space to breathe enables single blooms or, even later still, single leaves on full sheets of vellum to have an enormous impact.  The image below is close cropped for reproduction purposes.  In reality it's place in the upper left quadrant of a whole sheet of vellum 22 x 10cm - and below you are seeing the subject but not the overall impact.

Redcliffe Square 1979  
Images courtesy of the Estate of Rory McEwen
One of the things it's interesting to note is that he chose to paint imperfection and damage in leaves as well as the beautifully simple blooms.  In doing so he made use of macro photography to capture the essence of his subject before it shrivelled and died.

The leaves collection started after he had his first diagnosis of cancer. The titles of the leaves do not relate to the plant - they tell us where he found them. In reading them one feels as if you're being given an insight into what his life was like in the years when he was painting his leaves - maybe of places he was revisiting that were important to him.  I rather like the idea that one could paint a series of leaves, hang them on a wall and actually view them as time passing rather than just a series of rather stunning leaves.

You can see something of the size of some of his smaller paintings of leaves in the background of the photo below.  Karl Miller is quoted in the catalogue as describing them as follows
At its quintessential best, the art of his later years was to deliver, life size, a single autumn leaf - placed off-centre on a vellum page, with every tint of capillary caught. the tiny brish strokes barely decipherable.  Touched with decay, with russet, it might almost be the fallen leaf of requiem or elegy
Shirley Sherwood and paintings by Rory McEwen
in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens
Back in May I visited the exhibition for the first time to hear a review by Shirley Sherwood.

Dr. Shirley Sherwood with two English Florist (flamed) Tulips
grown by the Wakefield Tulip Society and painted by Rory McEwen
"an astonishing and gorgeous blockbuster of a wall"

The influences on Rory McEwen

McEwen did not go art school.  His art training was limited to being taught by Wilfrid Blunt who was his art master at Eton School and who was at the time working on his great publication The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History

He also learned the art of botanical art by studying the past masters. Shirley Sherwood emphasised how McEwen had researched the originals of botanical artworks by past masters whose work had been documented by Blunt.  Botanical artists such as George Ehret and Pierre Redoute were studied when McEwen viewed the originals of their work at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Natural History Museum.  Blunt was also able to show his pupils works in the Royal Library at Windsor.   McEwen's brother in law also bought two portfolios of 52 original watercolour paintings by Pierre-Jospeh Redoute on vellum - part of the Malmaison series and McEwen discovered and studied them while he was at Cambridge - creating his series of paintings of Heritage Carnations and Pinks.

The catalogue suggests that the influence of (Claude) Aubriet, (Nicholas) Robert and particularly Ehret can all be seen in his work.
  • Ehret is a clear influence on the style and painting of his series of heritage carnations (see the carnation in the British Museum below). 
  • The influence of Aubriet is most apparent in McEwen's paintings of butterflies.
I had a look to see what was available online in terms of some of the works he might have seen. It struck me that others might be interested to see some of the works which McEwen studied. What's interesting is that it's evident from some of the pieces that they are only part finished which means it gave McEwen the opportunity to study how the artwork was approached and painted as a process as well as the end result.

I was struck by the fact that Ehret always makes his pieces perfect whereas McEwen liked to paint the imperfections as well.

I've included links to works by Ehret below.  Take a look and

Botanical artwork by George Ehret (1708-1770) at the V&A

Botanical artwork by George Ehret at the Natural History Museum

Botanical artwork by George Ehret in British Museum

Botanical Artwork by George Ehret in the Royal Collection

Rory McEwen's legacy

The associated exhibition Rory McEwen’s legacy - Artists influenced by him in the Shirley Sherwood Collection continues until January 2014.

This is also an excellent exhibition - containing as it does those whose own artwork has sought to try and achieve the same quality of work as that which they'd seen of his own paintings.  Many had been influenced by seeing his exhibitions at the Redfern Gallery in London in 1974, the Oxford Gallery in Oxford or the Staempfli Gallery in New York - or the retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1988.  His exhibition at the Redfern Gallery has become known as the one which initiated the 20th century Renaissance in Botanical Art.

Artists in the exhibition include: Annie Farrer, Mariko Imai, Pandora Sellers, Coral Guest, Graham Rust, Kate Nessler, Jenny Braiser, Susannah Blaxill, Paul Jones, Lindsay Megarrity, Bobby Angell and Gillian Barlow


  1. I love leaves. I love painting leaves. But I never thought a painting of a leaf would touch me in the way McEwens leaves do. Both times I have been at the exhibition I have stood in tears before the leaves he painted in the last years of his life.
    He took not the perfect, but the trodden discarded leaves and gave them dignity and soul, let them shine in all their imperfection. These paintings gave me an almost religious feeling, much more than any real religious art.
    It is a pity the book reproductions don´t give these leave paintings justice- the light, almost otherwordly, can only be seen when standing in front of the paintings.
    Thank you for posting about his art! I hope that as many as possible can go and see the exhibition. It is at pity it is so expensive to enter Kew Gardens, 16 pounds are a lot of money. But for this exhibition it is worht it!

  2. Thank you so much for this series of posts on Rory McEwen. I would love to see his work in person one day. I just saw my first Andrew Wyeth paintings a few weeks ago. My eyes welled up so. Wyeth is my lifelong favourite painter. Rory is very close to that.

    Thank you again.



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