Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Rory McEwen Retrospective and the Legacy Exhibition at Kew

In 1974 as a first year fine art student, I stopped work early one afternoon, and on a whim left the Chelsea Art School building and took the number 19 Routemaster bus to Piccadilly, where I disembarked for Cork Street. Walking along in a kind of dream, pondering on my work, I happened to glance into the entrance corridor of the Redfern Gallery. There for the first time, glowing in the distance, I saw the Botanical Drawings of Rory McEwen. I stood staring in the half light, mesmerised. I stepped inside and looked at all the work until the gallery closed.

In the artistic environment of Minimalism, Conceptualism and Performance Art, these exquisite works were generally considered to be what was known at the time as Conosieur Watercolours, something of the highest technical quality which did not fit into the realm of the avant garde of the time. This, as well as his folk music, sat uncomfortably amidst the then event of David Bowie, Punk Rock on the streets of Chelsea, and the clothing of Vivienne Westwood.  

The English establishment of the day could not find a place in a fine art context for McEwen's botanical watercolours, and so the work was collected by the V&A Museum in London, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, both renown for their collections of the applied arts. Although owning a few of his abstract screen prints, neither Tate Britain nor Tate Modern has ever acquired any of his Botanical Drawings. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art with enlightened foresight own eleven pieces, acknowledging his work in a  fine art context. 

I saw further shows of Rory McEwen's work in 1976 and 1981, and also his extraordinary retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1988. During the 70's and 80's there were many opportunities to see his work in London, Oxford, Scotland and New York. Along with many Botanical Artists of my generation, I was inspired. Specifically, I loved the philosophy of the Sung Dynasty painters that Rory McEwen expressed in this work, as much as continuing the technical  lineage of European painters such as Van Eyck, Durer and Redoute, as well as the tonal qualities of photographer Karl Blossfeldt to whom his work pays homage. 

For younger Artists who have only ever seen singular originals or reproductions, the forth coming Colours of Reality Retrospective at Kew, will be a revelation. Running in parallel and as a supporting exhibition, is a small show of works by artists that have been influenced by Rory McEwen, whose work is represented in the Shirley Sherwood Collection. Included in this show are two of my of my early works.

The Colours of Reality Exhibition and its associated book are the product of lengthy planning and commitmentment to the significance of Rory McEwen's work by Dr Shirley Sherwood herself, and the Kew Staff at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery. For Botanical Artists, Collectors of Botanical Art, Art Historians and all who have an interest in the Botanical Art genre, it will be a means to place in context another piece of the jigsaw that is the Renaissance of Botanical Art.