Sometimes people enter our lives, and we note there is something extraordinary about them. When that happens when we are very young, we rarely realize the wider significance of that other person until much later. Imagine having sat beside Albert Einstein as he read you a story? We had the chance to interact with one of the great minds of the 20th century. Years later we might think, “If only I had known?” The truth is we didn’t know, and recalling the moment, we are disturbed at having perhaps not taken full advantage of the opportunity that we had.
Such moments have happened far too often in my life without my realizing it. One such encounter was with Rory McEwen. He was my uncle by marriage, whom I saw occasionally in London. Looking back, I am often amazed at my ignorance. The impact of my lack of knowledge continues to astonish me even now, because it is often our unawareness, as much as our intelligence, that determines the paths we choose to take.
Rory McEwen was by any measure a polymath. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he decided to explore the roots of jazz and folk songs by traveling to the United States with his brother. He was particularly enchanted with the music of Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Rory met Lead Belly’s widow, who so enjoyed his knowledge and skill that she allowed him to play the legend’s twelve-string guitar. This was in the 1950’s when the folk song era was taking off. The McEwen brothers recorded two albums and did gigs as they crossed the US. Rory then returned to the UK. There, Van Morrison heard him play and was inspired. Rory’s popularity grew, and the brothers played festivals to sellout crowds. Later, Rory became the host of the TV show, Hullabaloo on ATV from 1959 to 1963. He was well known in music circles. George Harrison even took sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar in Rory’s house.
Rory was a talented musician, no doubt, but his real skill was as an artist. He painted flowers, leaves, and plants on velum. He became one of the foremost painters of botanicals in the world. His paintings hang in the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, and in the MOMA, New York.
I do recall seeing his studio. He used extraordinarily fine brushes. At the time, he was painting a stalk of grass in mind-boggling detail. His concentration and precision were something to behold.
He passed in 1982.
How often have we connected with greatness but never realized it? It happens more often than we care to think.
For more about him, please see:
The photograph was taken from the book, Rory McEwen, The Colours of Reality, Revised Edition (2015) Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew: UK