'Rory McEwen’s unique talent was to combine botanical accuracy, artistic elegance and superb technique in the same painting'
"I paint flowers 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"
Rory McEwen was one of the best botanical artists that the UK has ever produced. He painted the flawless and the less than perfect with equal precision and artistic flair. His paintings were always works of art.
He was also one of the most importance influences on the development of contemporary botanical art - across the world.
This is a summary of his life as it related to botanical art. Although it should be noted he was a person with special talents which included music as well as art. (His music career and legacy are not covered on this page).
You can see a more detailed timeline at the bottom of this page.
“He was the first botanical painter to portray the natural world with the mind of a modern artist”
Born in 1932 in Berwickshire, Scotland, Rory McEwen started painting flowers when he was only eight years old.
His talent was recognised by Wilfred Blunt who taught him art at Eton at the same time that Blunt was writing his authoritative book 'The Art of Botanical Illustration' which explored the wide range of botanical illustration over time. Blunt pointed McEwen in the direction of the masters of botanical painting from the past (e.g. Ehret and Redoute) and he learned from them all he needed to become an exceptional botanical artist.
McEwen had no formal art school training. However, he had a talent to represent his botanical subject matter with scientific precision and artistic flair, and never compromising one for the other.
In 1955, by the time he finished at Cambridge University, eight of Rory’s watercolour paintings on vellum were published in "Old Carnations and Pinks" (see below) by the Rev. C. Oscar Moreton, with an introduction by Sacheverell Sitwell. His early suites of paintings, e.g. of old species of carnations and pinks, are simply stunning - and are displayed in this book.
As a young man Rory McEwen combined the careers of a flower painter and a musician. His music and television career covered the period 1956-65.
From 1964 McEwen devoted himself exclusively to visual art., after which he became a full-time visual artist in 1964.
He continued to paint in watercolour on vellum and continued to follow the practice of many botanical artists of working with authors on publications about specific species.
The colour plates of tulips after paintings by Rory McEwen were printed lithographically and tipped into the book. The separate portfolio of eight large, coloured lithographic prints are signed and numbered by Rory McEwen and suitable for framing.
In his own paintings he forged his own interpretation of 20th century modernism, with individual flowers and vegetables as the subject.
At the same time as painting his own version and interpretation of botanical art, he simultaneously experimented with glass, metal and perspex sculptures and abstracts in oil.
In the 1970s he had a number of important exhibitions at the Redfern Gallery in London and exhibited widely on an international basis.
The exhibition of a series of paintings called ‘True Facts from Nature’ series has been characterised as hugely influential in the development of contemporary botanical art.
McEwen is the greatest painter of tulips since the Dutch masters of the 17th century.
In the late 1970s he began his major series of paintings of leaves. Their titles focused on places that were meaingful to him, rather than botanical names.
Over the course of his career, McEwen developed a distinctive style, using large backgrounds to float his objects on unadorned vellum, without shadows, and executed in exact, minutely accurate detail; he saw them as ‘plant portraits’, recording the imperfect and the unique as well as the flawless.
He died age 50 on the 16th October, 1982.
His work has subsequently been celebrated in two major retrospective exhibitions in 1988/9 and 2013, two books and a television programme.
His artwork can be found in the collections of the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate, National Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh, and MOMA, New York
Many botanical artists now acknowledge his artwork as very influential to their own development as contemporary botanical artists.
The greatest change in Rory's work was to discard paper for vellum.... No paper can match the smoothness of its surface or lend such translucency and richness to watercolour. Rory painted on it 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.
John McEwen - quoted in 'The Colours of Reality' p62
For his Botanical Art, he developed a unique style for his paintings.
Rory McEwen's Vellum
The McEwen family gifted Rory's stock of vellum sheets to the The Hunt Institute following his death in 1982.
The late James White (and subsequently others) have gifted pieces of Rory's vellum to artists who have an interest in working on vellum, at their discretion. Occasionally you will see an artwork labelled that is has been executed on a sheet of Rory McEwen's vellum.
REFERENCE: ARTISTIC PRACTICE
Below is a record of what Martin J Allen and I could glean about his artistic practice while visiting the exhibition at Kew in 2013
‘His botanical work predated and outlasted all others, and in it, paradoxically, he was most truly an artist of his time. For a while a good many artists could work in these idioms of modernism, none could paint an auricula or an onion as he could, while possessing the consciousness of a modern artist’.
Douglas Hall- Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 1960 -1984
Old Carnations and Pinks
by C.O. Moreton
with illustrations by Rory McEwen
This was his first collaboration and venture into print via creating a series of works for a book. In 1964, he illustrated The Auricula by the same author. These are botanical artworks in the stylised antiquarian representational style. It's still possible to buy this book, as I have, if you don't mind having a used copy.
I own a copy of this fascinating book - which is now 60 years old. It's lovely to have full plates of old carnations and pinks as well as the stories behind them.
Old carnations and pinks available from Amazon.co.uk
Hardcover: 51 pages
Publisher: George Rainbird in association with Collins; 1st Ed edition (1955)
Tulips & tulipomania
by Wilfrid Blunt, 1901-1987
with sixteen plates from paintings by Rory McEwen.
Published: London : Basilisk Press, 1977.
Description: 100 p. : 16 col. plates. ; 29 cm.
First published as Tulipomania by Penguin Books Ltd. 1950.
Teacher and student collaborated for the first time on this publication with Blunt providing authorittative text and McEwen the images of the tulips
"The colour plates of tulips after paintings by Rory McEwen were printed lithographically and tipped into the book. The separate portfolio of eight large, coloured lithographic prints are signed and numbered by Rory McEwen and suitable for framing.The author, Wilfred Blunt, provides an often-quoted history of the tulip, giving an account of its discovery in Turkey at the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, and its gradual proliferation throughout Europe, with special chapters on tulipomania in Holland, England and Turkey. A very fine copy signed by Blunt on the colophon. One of the great rarities and desiderata of modern botanical literature"
Correspondence between Rory McEwen and the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society. He became Patron of the Society in 1962.
Rory McEwen: True Facts from Nature, Recent Paintings (1974)
Rory McEwen's True Facts from Nature show at the Redfern Gallery, Cork Street, is another example of first-class precision painting; here the subject Is figurative and the leaf studies are remarkable. That McEwen can do for the leaf what Audubon did for birds is not in doubt, but the smartness of the presentation almost undoes him. These immaculately rendered studies compete with the handsome mounts and frames that enshrine their. The calfskin vellum is a most impressive surface, and the offcentre placement of the single leaf gives it an importance that underlines the effect with all the subtlety of a drum roll. But, despite the vulgar good taste, they are damned good pictures.
the ‘True Facts from Nature’ series are virtually impenetrable – they look like they were always like that, as if they had miraculously appeared, with no hint as to how they were created
Coral Guest commented on seeing his exhibitions in the 1970s then again in 1988 at the Serpentine
'Rory McEwen - The Botanical Paintings'
An exhibition "Rory McEwen: The Botanical Paintings" was held after his death, in 1988, as part of the Edinurgh Festival at
This exhibition marked and commemorated his passing and stimulated a new generation of botanical artists.
Rory McEwen: The Botanical Paintings
by Caroline Cuthbert (Editor), Rory McEwen (Illustrator)
This is the book and catalogue produced for the exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery in 1988. The cover is his magical and delicate painting of the fritallary.
Paperback: 82 pages, 7" x 8.5" 24 full colour plates; 74 small monochrome plates
Publisher: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in association with the Serpentine Gallery (1988)
Rory McEwen, 1932-1982: The botanical paintings available from Amazon.co.uk
'The Colours of Reality'
Features and Reviews:
Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality
by Martyn Rix
Rated an average of 5 out of 5 stars by:
This is a very influential book. It's both:
I own a copy of this book and it's very precious.
You can LOOK INSIDE at some of the illustrations. and also view the images of the artwork in the two videos below.
Some of the subjects in the book have a magnified image.
The reproduction quality of the publication is very good. If you get a magnifying glass out and inspect the colour plates, you can see something of how he painted his subject matter - including the tiny strokes of paint - although there comes a point where it's difficult to distinguish the strokes from the dots of the printing process!
The only real issue I have with this book is that the images are often cropped when included in the book. This means you can see the painting of the subject very clearly but not the placement on the page or the space left around it.
The author Martin Rix is the editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine and the author of numerous books about botanical art.
Publisher: Royal Botanic Gardens
1st Edition: 7 May 2013)
Revised Hardback Edition published 2015
The painting on the Cover is his 1979 painting Kensington Gardens I, Viburnum X Carisephan (watercolour on vellum, 21 x 18 cm).
Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality available from Amazon.co.uk
Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality - at Amazon.com
His botanical work predated and outlasted all others, and in it, paradoxically, he was most truly an artist of his time. For a while a good many artists could work in these idioms of modernism, none could paint an auricula or an onion as he could, while possessing the consciousness of a modern artist’.
Douglas Hall - Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 1960 -1984
Two paintings in the White House
Dear Mr. Calvert,
I returned recently from New York, where the exhibition of my flower paintings has just closed. I am happy to say that it was successful, nearly selling out on the opening day. The reason I am writing to you is that two of the pictures were bought by an anonymous donor and given in perpetuity to the White House in Washington. One of these pictures was a painting of Julia Farnese and the Old Dutch Bizarre that you so kindly sent me last summer. The name of your Society is written on the picture, and I had the good fortune to meet the President’s wife, Mrs Kennedy and told her all about the tulips, in which she was very interested. So long as the White House stands, the Wakefield Tulip Society’s flowers and the name of the Society will be hanging on the wall there!
A letter from Rory McEwen to Mr H R Calvert, the Secretary of the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society dated 16 January 1963
Over the course of his career, McEwen developed a distinctive style, using large backgrounds to float his ‘plant portraits’ on vellum. Without shadows and executed in exact, minutely accurate detail, he recorded the imperfect and the unique, as well as the flawless
Colours of Reality | Press release
It is certainly important to note that McEwen is an artist well versed in the ideology of contemporary art, who chooses to paint leaves because they provide a vehicle for the expression of his feelings about life and art'
(Fenella Crichton in exhibition catalogue for Rory McEwen, London, Taranman, 1980).
Rory McEwen also made prints of his artwork.
This is a print of an onion in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum)
These are a couple of screen prints in the Tate Collection.
Prints of his work - approved by his Estate - are now available to buy via
This timeline is focused on Botanical Art and omits information relating to his wider interests with respect to music
12 March 1932 - born at Marchmont House, in Berwickshire, in the Scottish Borders. He was the son of Sir John Helias Finnie McEwen and Lady Bridget Mary McEwenin.
Botany and botanical art ran in his genes. He was also the great grandson (via his mother) of botanist and illustrator John Lindley of RHS and Lindley Hall and Lindley Library fame.
1940 - age 8, Rory McEwen began to paint flowers under the instruction of a by a French governess called Mademoiselle Philippe
1945-50 - Attended Eton. His education in painting flowers continued in the drawings schools, where he was taught by Wilfrid Blunt who was, at the time, working on his authoritative book The Art of Botanical Illustration which was published in 1950. Blunt was able to show his pupils works in the Royal Library at Windsor. McEwen was also encouraged by Blunt to look at artists featured in his book, including:
'I sat down and painted a rose and found to my surprise that my hand had unknowingly educated itself'.
early 50s - 2 years of National Service in The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders
1953-55 - he read English at Trinity College Cambridge
1956-65 - His musical career took precedence - you can read more about this in BBC - In search of Rory McEwen. His exhibition record would suggest he paints intermittently during this time but that his main focus was his music.
1957 - Marries Romana von Hofmannsthal. They subsequently have three daughters and a son.
1965 - Gives up performing music to concentrate on art.
1965 - Meets Jim Dine, and experiments with abstract art
1967 - Exhibition at the Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh
1970 - Makes a film with German sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys on the Moor of Rannoch
1971 - visited Bhutan (Letter from Bhutan)
1972 - True Facts from Nature series of paintings. This artwork is a marked departure from conventional botanical art. It presented plants as they actually are rather than the conventional perfection.
1972 - Exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, London, is cited by many of today’s leading botanical artists as the show that opened the door to a more experimental approach to the depiction of plants.
1977 - He was considered by Wilfred Blunt to be one of the most original innovators in the field of botanical draughtsmanship. McEwen painted 16 colour plates and 8 colour plates for a limited edition of Tulips and Tulipmania (2 volumes) by Wilfrid Blunt plus 8 separate colour plates (Tulips and Tulipomania. London, The Basilisk Press, 1977. Edition of 515 copies. Typically available now only via reputable auction houses).
Around this time Rory McEwen (1932–82) became patron of the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society (which is the the sole surviving Old English Florist Tulip Society)
Late 1970s – Travels to Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Andaman Islands
1979 - 81 – Series of leaf paintings about the most important places in his life
1982 (summer) - disagnosed with terminal cancer. He had two brain tumours. The second was inoperable and pressed on his optic nerve causing him to see double. There was a prospect that the radiation treatment he received might deal with the cancer but not save the nerve. He began to empty his studo and put it up for sale.
16 October 1982 - (age 50) commited suicide by climbing a fence and throwing himself under a train at South Kensington tube station
We hear a lot about a few of his exhibitions. However he exhibited much more widely than people realised.
This listing is based on the one provided in the memoir written by Christian McEwan and listed below
The information has been reorganised in terms of that more typically found in an artist's CV ie. solo, group and retrospective exhibitions respectively - plus links to a gallery's website (at first mention - if available)
Solo Exhibitions in his lifetime
Group Exhibitions in his lifetime
His posthumous 1988 Serpentine Gallery exhibition is considered one of the major turning points in the development of contemporary botanical art having a marked affect on its followers today.
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