1949: in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, three young Scotsmen are listening to American folk and blues from the United States. Jamie, the elder, had discovered this side of the Atlantic the hitherto unknown Lead Belly tunes when serving in the Army in WWII. Legendary blues singer and instrumentalist Huddie William Ledbetter’s life couldn’t be more opposed to that of the brothers, being born on a plantation and having done time in more than one prison due to his dangerously volatile temper.
Initiated in folk music through his music loving connoisseur father, in the Scottish Marches far away from the cotton fields young Rory connects the dots between American blues of the South, and Scottish folk music of the North. He fell deeply in love with the calling vocals and prison songs, while the complex sounds of the 12 string guitar would accompany his entire life.
Nature was home, and its depiction a personal journey: Jamie became a bird painter and Rory started painting nature from the age of eight – introduced by his French governess – a nod to Scotland’s French alliance of the past. At Eton, impressed by the rare talent, his teacher Wilfred Blunt encouraged him to follow his passion. Later, returning from his military service in Egypt in 1953, the first thing Rory did was to sit down and draw a rose - to see if the skill hadn’t left him. It had in fact become sharper.
While studying English at Cambridge he performed with guitar so successfully that it landed him a career in music and show biz. He left for the USA with his younger brother Alex in 1956. Singing their unique cross atlantic medley, they toured small towns venues, a true baptism by fire - and here he finally laid his hands on his own 12 string guitar. His return home with his NY bride settled the lifelong link between two continents and cultures.
Guitar aside, painting botanics was his art of choice. His brother in law, Frederick Hesketh collected his work from the early ‘50s onwards, later Frederick’s son Alexander Hesketh would commission many paintings. From 1964 on, his focus shifted entirely to painting and, during the ‘60s, sculpture.
A virtuoso in the world of colour, light, petals and leaves this painstakingly precise and isolating activity was his form of meditation. It offered him a return to nature each time, reclusion in a pool of calm and beauty — in stark contrast to his very active outer persona - as husband, father, both host at home and on stage and TV. ‘I must paint’ are words his daughter Samantha remembers.
Music and mathematical precision runs through his entire opus, and while obvious in the first domain, it also reigns in painting: luminous roses and carnations dance, tulips form arabesques. In his ballet of bloom, the stage is lit and the plants perform, ever so lightly without touching down. Think Naum Gabo of the Botanical world: the rhythm prevails, eloquent characters pirouette on the page or hold still ready for the next move; flowers, leaves, vegetables are virtually vibrating on the vellum.
Resounding inner music, overarching light. Rory McEwen illuminates and stages the lightest objects as subjects, beauty caught in flight, framed in time.
His progressive style in a classical framework shows an entirely modern approach while connecting with botanic science’s roots in the Age of Enlightenment. A drying pepper becomes a blazing sword, an onion undresses for our eye. This painterly expression was very little understood by his ‘60s contemporaries, when abstract, intellectual art, political and social motivations where rife. Its uniqueness stands out even more.
- When turning to sculpture, Rory McEwen tellingly picked the then novelty of perspex. Our eyes are met with a kaleidoscope of colours, colour in the purest form: light. Meeting Joseph Beuys in Scotland in 1970, Beuys conceived a journey into the highlands.
Documented on film by Rory in collaboration with the artist, Beuys would perform an ‘action,’ creating a representation of a beating heart, the heart of the land. The colour vanishes, the words are carried off by the winds of the Western shores, weightless, momentary, eternal, universal.
Impermanence is fundamental to his chosen subjects, intrinsically reflecting the cycle of life. His eldest daughter Flora recalls “About forty years ago I was walking down a street in Paris with my father Rory when he bent down, picked up a leaf and held it up to the light. He said ‘Flora look at this - this contains everything you’ll ever need to know about life.‘“
From startling beauty to rapid decay, flowers are shown at their prime, or with petals falling. Leaves as light as a feather can be seen green and strong, then torn down by the wind with the first gusts of autumn. While with the first signs of terminal illness dying leaves continue to appear, it is the tulip cut in full bloom which truly represents Rory McEwen.
The light remains.