By all accounts, Rory McEwen (1932–82) was a remarkable man, hugely talented in several different disciplines (artist, musician, writer) and very much loved by his friends. Grey Gowrie calls him ‘a spectacular human being’ and writes: ‘Even now, 30 years after his death, he lights up the mind of everyone who knew him.’ Renowned as a botanical artist, McEwen was also an exceptional musician, specialising in blues and folk, whose mastery of the 12-string acoustic guitar rivalled the legendary Lead Belly. With his brother Alexander, Rory toured across the USA in 1956, becoming one of the first British acts to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. Back in London, Rory became the resident singer on the Tonight programme, later hosting his own late-night TV show. In the 1960s he settled to art with a passion, but never limited himself to painting flowers. He also made abstract Perspex sculptures and worked with Joseph Beuys on a Scottish happening. Among his artist friends were the Americans Jim Dine, Brice Marden and Cy Twombly. McEwen was no ordinary botanical illustrator.
This superb exhibition pays tribute to the diversity of McEwen’s prodigious gifts. A short film offers many insights into the art and the man, and is a good place to start. Those interviewed range from Jonathan Miller to Glen Baxter (the latter particularly illuminating) and Van Morrison, who cites McEwen as a crucial influence and asks why he’s been written out of British musical history. His story sets the imagination alight and the heart soars throughout this ravishing display, from the botanical works to the impressive sculptures, the single rather good large landscape watercolour, the grass paintings and the late collages. But it is the flowers that initially compel the gaze: the roses, anemones, tulips, the closed lily bud like the mysterious smile of a blue whale, and the amazing fritillaries.
Although he had no formal training as an artist, his great-great grandfather on his mother’s side was John Lindley, the great botanist, and at Eton he was taught art by Wilfrid Blunt, who was then working on his seminal book The Art of Botanical Illustration. As a young man he evidently enjoyed the distractions of showbiz, but readily shelved his career as a troubadour to focus on painting. His younger brother and noted contributor to these pages, the art critic John McEwen, describes Rory working ‘with the concentration of a watchmaker, using a sheaf of the tiniest brushes’, and calls him ‘a romantic minimalist’. His beautiful paintings of flowers (the word ‘exquisite’ seems to have been invented to describe them) lift off the vellum into three-dimensional existence, yet he painted them without shadows and their placing on the sheet was essentially a matter of formal considerations. Equally, when he painted auriculas, he showed the root system in a coil of exemplary pattern-making, again emphasising the importance of the abstract to balance the naturalistic.
Perhaps inevitably the late works seem most poignant, especially the series of single leaves evoking particular places. But there is also an amazing group of vegetable portraits (onions, red pepper, artichoke) and a memorable persimmon. In fact, everything here commands attention. McEwen was searching for meaning in our physical existence (observation of the natural world being for him an act of worship), trying to get as close as possible to the truth — his truth of the time in which he lived. He said: ‘A dying leaf should be able to carry the weight of the world.’ In his paintings it does just that.
For a complete contrast, consider Paul Delvaux (1897–1994), the Belgian Surrealist, at Blain|Di Donna. Delvaux trained as an architect and his early work shows the influence of Post-Impressionist and Expressionist modes before he saw his first paintings by de Chirico, Magritte and Dalí in 1934. He was instantly seduced, and although always careful to maintain a distance from the Surrealist group, he did join the circle of Belgian artists around Magritte, and to that extent made his allegiance plain. He quickly developed a recognisable idiom, which changed little thereafter: the focus was on nude or half-clothed women, often of the odalisque type, rendered with painstaking attention to detail. He liked architectural settings of some complexity, their façades, piazzas and parterres locked together in rigorously applied perspectival schemes. This hyper-realism paradoxically leads to a sense of unreality, which in turn feeds a growing unease.
Yet there is calmness here, despite the oddity. Delvaux’s bare-breasted, dark-eyed beauties are the embodiment of detachment, tricked out with necklaces of elaborate design. Delvaux loved pattern to an obsessional degree, from the intricacies of lavish foliage and ironwork tracery to an embroidered lace fichu over bare flesh. This can be seen in all his work, but particularly in the ink and watercolour drawings in Gallery Two, of which the finest include ‘L’école des savants’ (1958) and ‘Murmures’ (1979). The influence of James Ensor is apparent in Gallery Four, though the skeletons’ lament in ‘La mise au tombeau III’ (1957) surpasses even Ensor’s fantasies. There’s also magic here: in Gallery One a shoal of mermaids disport themselves beneath looming gasometers and derricks, while a couple of naked girls take the evening air, a touch apprehensively. Picasso’s neoclassicism is rendered sensitive and hesitant, with a tinge of metaphysical darkness. Perhaps the best painting in the show is ‘La fenêtre’ (1936), which plays subtly with notions of interior and exterior.
This is the first-ever solo exhibition of Delvaux in this country, and is thus a welcome opportunity to assess his quirky talents. On this showing, he is not a great artist but an interesting and beguiling one, a maker of intriguing and often sexy urban images that suggest modern interpretations of ancient myths. If his pictures sometimes look like illustrations from some arcane book of courtly manners, the oddly desolate landscapes bring an edge of contemporary disquiet to the scene. (Significantly, J.G. Ballard was an admirer of his work.) Organised in close collaboration with the Paul Delvaux Foundation, and comprising loans from both museums and private collections, this is a show to savour for its unusualness.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 June 2013Tags: Blain|Di Donna, Kew Gardens, Paul Delvaux, Rory McEwen