I knew of Rory McEwen and his work before reading the memoir written by his niece Christian McEwen. However Rory was simply a name on the timeline of botanical art history I try to organize in my head; his paintings, work to admire and study in books such as Wilfrid Blunt’s The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History.
When I put the book down, I couldn’t think beyond what I had just read. I realized I was no longer looking at a timeline with Rory McEwen’s name on it. I stopped being an outside observer because Christian brought me into the timeline of her uncle’s life and allowed me to experience some of it with her.
Christian McEwen’s recollection of her relationship with her uncle is extremely moving and we are fortunate she has chosen to share this relationship with us.
Christian writes about her uncle’s privileged upbringing, his love of music and art, and his hunger for solitude and world travel. She shares personal letters and writes about the impression Rory McEwen made upon her life before his death in 1982 at the age of 50.
Music Hiding in the Air is not a new book. It appeared online ten years ago on a website called Archipelago. It was transformed into book form by Bauhan Publishing because of the exhibition Rory McEwen, The Colours of Reality now at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (May 11 – September 22, 2013). Christian wrote her memoir in the late 1990s while living in the United States. She says she wrote the memoir because at the time she “was hungry for my people and Scotland. Writing about Rory enabled me to connect with Scotland.”
Christian wrote about her uncle to ground herself in her own family story. When she wrote her book, Rory McEwen was an unknown artist partly because he sold his work to private collections. People eventually began to learn about him, however, and Dr. Shirley Sherwood was among those collecting Rory’s work. Now 15 years later, Rory McEwen is receiving recognition that is long overdue. Christian says Rory is “being resurrected” by the event at Kew.
Credited with revolutionizing botanical art, Rory painted images of plants with incredible detail. He painted on vellum and used a heart surgeon’s magnifying glass to look at flowers closely. Christian says that poet Alastair Reid once told her Rory worked with a kind of pulley system that allowed him to hover his hand over the vellum so he wouldn’t smudge it.
How many hours did Rory spend in his studio? Christian isn’t sure. She remembers visiting his studio when she was a teenager, and says Rory could be a very solitary person, and also very gregarious. Somehow he managed to balance family time with long hours alone, painting.
When asked to identify who she would like to read her book, Christian replied:
Those in the immediate family who have been born or have grown up since Rory died.
Botanical artists at all levels of expertise.
The people of Scotland, who up till now may have known him only as a musician. They will rediscover him as a Renaissance man, a poet and an artist, a true cosmopolitan.
Fellow artists and admirers in the United States.
Christian went on to say that many people have connected with her book. Since publishing her memoir online, Christian says strangers have written to her saying they were moved by Rory’s story. His story – a human story – is a good story all by itself.
Whomever reads her book, Christian wants people to understand one thing about her uncle. She wants them to see he understood the true power of the Latin phrase, carpe diem (“seize the day”). She wants people to be inspired by Rory’s story, his art and “the power of life lived in the service of one’s art. Of one’s heart.”
About Christian McEwen
Christian McEwen is a writer, teacher and workshop leader. She came to the University of California at Berkeley on a Fulbright Scholarship, and has lived most of her adult life in the United States. She returns to Scotland to teach each summer. This year, she will be teaching on the Scottish Island of Tanera Mor with the textile artist, Jan Kilpatrick.
Slow Down & Create with Christian McEwen
Christian is the author of World Enough & Time: On Creativity & Slowing Down, a thought-provoking book in which she encourages people to create time for creativity and self-expression. Would you like to make time for yourself and creativity?
Consider taking World Enough & Time: Creativity & Slowing Down on the Summer Isles (June 8-15, 2013). No roads. No shops. No TV. Imagine!
Later this year, Christian will teach The Art of Letter Writing: Voice, Calligraphy & Spirit with calligrapher, illustrator and author, Barbara Bash. This September workshop will be taught at Sky Lake Lodge in Rosendale, NY. Learn More