Rory McEwen (artist)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Roderick McEwen or Rory McEwen (12 March 1932 – 16 October 1982) was a Scottish artist and musician.

Early life and education[edit]

Roderick McEwen was the fourth child of Sir John Helias Finnie McEwen and Lady Bridget Mary McEwen. His mother was daughter of Sir Francis Oswald Lindley and granddaughter of botanist and illustrator John Lindley, who in 1840 was instrumental in saving The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from destruction.

McEwen was educated at home (Marchmont House) by a French governess called Mademoiselle Philippe, and at Eton where he was taught by Wilfred Blunt who described him as "perhaps the most gifted artist to pass through my hands". After his National Service in The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, he gained an English degree at Trinity College Cambridge, where he became friends with Karl Miller, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Mark Boxer among others.


In 1955, he wrote and performed in Between the Lines at the 1955 Cambridge Footlights Revue production at the Scala Theatre in London.

In 1956, he travelled with his younger brother Alexander on the Cunarder Ascania to New York in search of Huddie William Leadbetter's widow, Martha. When they found her she was so impressed by their understanding of, and skill at, playing her late husband's music, that she allowed Rory to play Leadbelly's custom-made 12-string Stella guitar, inspiring him to set off to find his own. The brothers played their way across America, cutting 'Scottish Songs and Ballads' for Smithsonian Folkways Records, and appearing on the coast-to-coast Ed Sullivan Show on CBS, twice, before returning home to Britain.

By 1957, McEwen had become one of the leading lights in the post-war folksong revival, and was a regular on the daily BBC Tonight TV programme presented by Cliff Michelmore, writing and performing topical calypsos, whilst also working as the art editor for the Spectator magazine.

In the early 1960s, Rory and Alex hosted their own live shows to sell-out audiences at three successive Edinburgh Festivals. George Melly, the Clancy Brothers, Dave Swarbrick (later of Fairport Convention), Bob Davenport and the Americans Dick Farina and Carolyn Hester were among their guests.

Between 1959 and 1963, Rory presented and performed on the seminal folk and blues music programme Hullabaloo for commercial ATV television.

Among his closest artist friends were Jim Dine, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly,[1] Robert Graham, Kenneth Armitage, Derek Boshier and David Novros. Among close poet friends were the Portuguese Alberto de Lacerda and the Americans Kenneth Koch and Ron Padget. It was typical of Rory McEwen's Scottish internationalism and versatility that, as an offshoot 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.


From 1964, he decided to devote himself entirely to his career in visual art, his floral interest also finding expression in colour-refracting perspex sculpture and large abstract works in glass and steel using perspex.[1] In painting he forged his own interpretation of international minimalism, creating works of exquisite beauty in water colour on velum, of flowers, leaves and vegetables. His work is in the British Museum, V&A, Tate Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland, Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh and MOMA, New York, among other collections.


Younger artists 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 probably the first person to play 12-string acoustic guitar on TV in Britain.

Personal life[edit]

On 15 April 1958, Rory married Romana von Hofmannsthal. Her father was Raimond von Hofmannsthal, the son of Hugo Laurenz August Hofmann von Hofmannsthal, Strauss's librettist and founder of the Salzburg Festival, and her mother Ava Alice Astor, daughter of the American socialite Ava Lowle Willing, who later became Lady Ribblesdale, and John Jacob Astor IV, the multi-millionaire investor, inventor and writer, who drowned on the Titanic.

In the summer of 1982, McEwen was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On 16 October, suffering and in a state of despair, he threw himself under a train at South Kensington tube station. He was 50.[2]


  • Tulips and Tulipomania, with Wilfred Blunt
  • Old Carnations and Pinks with Oscar C. Moreton (and an introduction by Sacheverell Sitwell)
  • The Auricula, Its History and Character with Oscar C. Moreton
  • From the Air with Kenneth Koch
  • Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality edited by Martyn Rix


  • 1962 Durlacher Bros., New York
  • 1964
Andre Weill Gallery, Paris
The Hunt Botanical Library, Pittsburgh
National Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh
Gateway Theatre, Edinburgh
  • 1965 Durlacher Bros., New York
  • 1966 Douglas and Foulis, Edinburgh
  • 1967
Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh
Byron Gallery, New York
  • 1968
Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh
Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf
  • 1969 Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh
  • 1970 Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh
  • 1971 Scottish Arts Council
  • 1972
Redfern Gallery, London
Sonnabend Gallery, New York
  • 1974
Redfern Gallery, London
Tooth's Gallery, London
  • 1975 Oxford Gallery, Oxford
  • 1976 Redfern Gallery, London
  • 1977 Oxford Gallery, Oxford
  • 1978 ICA, London
  • 1979 Taranman Gallery, London
  • 1980 Nihonbash Gallery, Tokyo
  • 1981
Redfern Gallery, London
Fischer Fine Art. London
  • 1982
Steampfli Gallery, New York
Wave Hill, New York
  • 1983 Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh
  • 1984 Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1988 Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh, and the Serpentine Gallery, London
  • 2013 Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens, London[3]


  • Rory and Alex McEwen, Scottish Songs and Ballads, Smithsonian Folkways Records 1957
  • Rory and Alex McEwen and Isla Cameron, Folksong Jubilee, His Master's Voice 1958
  • Rory and Alex McEwen, and Carolyne and Dick Farina,Four For Fun, Waverly Records 1963
  • Jim Dine and Rory McEwen, Songs, Poems and Prints, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1969


  1. ^ a b Lambirth, Andrew (29 June 2013). "Exhibition review: Rory McEwen: the botanical artist who influenced Van Morrison". The Spectator. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  2. ^ Mark Hudson (9 May 2013). "Flowers and rock and roll: The botanical art of Rory McEwen". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  3. ^ Amy Dyduch (17 May 2013). "Camilla at Kew Gardens for celebration of Rory McEwen". Richmond and Twickenham Times. London. Retrieved 4 July 2013.