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When art colleges resume next month in Britain, none of them will require their students to paint a flower. Few of them even ask or teach them to draw anything. I cannot draw, either, although, like Tracey Emin, I am hopeless at making my bed. I can, however, contemplate flowers, one of the essential effects of actually gardening. I cut flowers worth contemplating and look at them in a small jug on the dining table. Right now, I am contemplating Agapanthus ardernei with grey lines in its white flowers. If only I knew how to paint it. Flower painting is dismissed by colleges as fit only for underemployed women with a little talent. I bet that not a single flower painting has been bought by the Tate Modern in the past 20 years.
Until September 22 flower-lovers and artists can compensate by going to Kew to see a truly remarkable exhibition. Rory McEwen died sadly, aged 50, from an incurable brain tumour in 1982. He had touched the hearts of all who knew him as a man of exceptional talent, both musically and artistically. He began painting flowers at the age of eight, encouraged by his French governess in a big family house on the Scottish Borders. At Eton he was decisively formed by the botanical artist, Wilfrid Blunt. After Cambridge and military service, he was invited, aged 23, to paint dianthus for a fine book by the clergyman Oscar Moreton. The original paintings are on view at Kew. They glow already with his trademarks.
Meanwhile, Rory became known for his guitar playing and singing, even on BBC television. As early as 1948 he had hit on the genius of Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, king of the 12-string guitar. The exhibition catalogue contains a notable essay by the journalist James Fox, himself a considerable 12-string player in his youth. All lovers of folk, blues and later pop music will find forgotten history in its evocation of privately known encounters. It was in McEwen’s London house in Tregunter Road that a long-term guest, the sitar-player Ravi Shankar, first met another frequent guest, George Harrison, and interested him in Indian music. He diverted The Beatles in an unexpected direction. In 1956, McEwen had found Leadbelly’s widow, Martha, in New York. She heard him play for her, he noted, “clapped her hands . . . and drew from under the bed, Huddie’s guitar. Wow, it was like the Holy Grail, a great big custom-built Stella with a big booming tone.” It took McEwen many months and a trip to a pawnshop in Galveston, Texas, to find another 12-string for sale. He mastered it, until a great New York guitarist credited this gentlemanly Scotsman with “playing the same as Lead Belly, the only one who could do it for real”.
By 1958 McEwen had married an Astor and had fans galore of his own. “Please send me a picture of Rory McEwen,” says a postcard in Kew’s show. “I prefer him to Tommy Steele and he is dreadfully good looking.” Nobody would dispute this young lady’s judgment. Urbane, attentive and ever-thoughtful, McEwen had withdrawn from the guitar-playing scene by 1965. He had still been painting flowers in the early 1960s, auriculas and then some amazing de Caen anemones. In a very acute catalogue essay the botanist Martyn Rix traces McEwen’s development. I find it extraordinarily touching.
In New York, McEwen met avant-garde artists at an immensely fertile moment. He duly experimented with Perspex artworks. He, too, had hopes of painting something modern on a big scale. However, he returned to flower painting, about as uncool a choice as a figure from the epicentre of contemporary cool could make. In 1971 he bought a family home on the west coast of Scotland. He had an intense love of the Scottish landscape, its songs and stories since his charmed youth. He settled back into a routine, painting for eight hours a day. So many artists become freer with their brushstrokes as they age – Michelangelo, Gainsborough, or Manet. Remarkably, McEwen did the opposite. He had made one crucial choice, to paint wherever possible on vellum. The exceptional glow in his paintings relates to it. As a boy, he studied the great flower painter George Ehret. His brother-in-law then bought him original paintings of flowers by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, not the debased prints we know too well.
I asked the current queen of flower painting in upper-class circles, Emma Tennant, what she thought of Rory’s work. “Brilliant,” she replied, “up there with Ehret and Redouté,” but for her, he is the supreme illustrator, not an artist.
As we looked over a mown grass field to a post-and-rail fence and the rough wilderness beyond, she moderated her view. “Illustration is not one side of the fence, art the other. They interpenetrate,” she said. At Kew she would surely see how McEwen had a foot on either side. “I paint flowers,” he wrote, “as a way of getting as close as possible to what I perceive as the truth, my truth of the time in which I live.” For a friend of Bob Dylan, whose paintings were bought by John F Kennedy, pictures of violets and rare fritillaries may seem an odd time-truth to choose. However, they interconnect with what he underwent.
McEwen is the greatest painter of tulips since the Dutch masters of the 17th century. In his lines of broken colour, their facts become art through love. In 1971 he turned to another type of truth – paintings of dried violets, dead tree leaves and seeds. Was the choice, I wonder, related to the tragic death of his brother in 1971? In 1979 his paintings of dying tree leaves reached new heights of exactly-observed empathy. By then, he had been diagnosed with cancer. Surely he was drawn to these autumnal masterpieces because of his own predicament. He saw so much in them – art, not illustration.
Above all there are the fritillaries. Here I must add a memory. Snakeshead fritillaries are interwoven into my life, never finer than in the hundreds of thousands in the Oxford meadow of Magdalen College. They are such a sight that I would be willing to become immortal so as to go on seeing them. I remember telling McEwen at a party in London that they were “impossible to paint”. Soon after, he sent, typically, a perfectly painted snakeshead. As their expert, Rix, explains, it was a fascinating moment in fritillary history, a sort of avant-garde moment all over again. In the 1970s so many new forms were being collected all over Asia. McEwen, advised by Rix, painted their “impossible” colouring and texture. In 1981, he went to Afghanistan, another land of fritillaries, and wrote afterwards of his deep belief in “heart-groups”. They are our “widening personal circle of love and affection, starting with our dearest and dying out in the shallows of distant acquaintance”. An Afghan in the Panjshir Valley could briefly hold a picked fritillary and look on it as he, McEwen, would look on a picked “wild Ayrshire rose”. The fritillaries were part of a shared “heart-group”. He went west, in the 1950s, at the right time for his music. He went east, in 1981, at the right time for his painting. He lives at the top of British flower painters, a man whom I knew at that point where the shallows fall into depths, the formative force beneath his art.
‘Rory McEwen, The Colours of Reality’ runs at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew Gardens, until September 22. The catalogue is available from www.kewbooks.com