m e m o i r 

c h r i s t i a n  m c e w e n


Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still. The people we loved. The people who loved us. The people who, for good or ill, taught us things.

Frederick Buechner, THE SACRED JOURNEY


It’s early May, one of the first days that really feels like spring. I’ve been wandering round the garden, pausing at intervals to admire the scarlet tulips and the creamy daffodils, the blue and pinkish clusters of forget-me-nots. I’ve been taking the time it always takes to notice things: the bright star at the center of each forget-me-not, the rich gloss on the petals of the tulips. And, as so often now in recent years, I’ve been thinking about Rory.

Rory was my uncle, my father’s younger brother, a tall man in a kilt or summer blue jeans, his long legs going up and up. He was also a painter, best known for his watercolors of leaves and flowers on vellum. He died (too young) in 1982. But his work remains: in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in museums and private collections all over the world.

It was from looking at Rory’s pictures that I first began to see. He was my mentor for a crucial nine years, from my late teens until well into my twenties. He made time to talk to me and take me out to lunch; he invited me to his openings; he wrote to me, reliably and often. He was an artist, first and foremost, whereas I knew from early on that I wanted to write. But across all the differences of genre and gender, the endeavor was the same. Even now, he is someone from whom I’m still learning, someone whose work still startles and inspires me, whose interests (in nature, poetry, music, art and Buddhism) consistently reinvigorate my own.


Long ago, back before adult time began, I remember lying on the rug beside the fire, with the gray rain pouring down outside, and my uncles’ voices on the record-player: heavy, grainy, grown up voices, familiar and monotonous:

Ye Hi’lands and ye Lawlands

Oh where hae ye been?

They have slain the Earl o’ Moray

And laid him on the green.

They sang “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” and “The Wife of Usher’s Well”; they sang “The Four Maries” and “The Barnyards o’ Delgaty,” and between getting up to stare out the window at the sodden lawn and attending – grumbling and obedient – to the roaring fire, between squabbling over Beano and last week’s color supplement, my brothers and sisters and I learned all the words unthinking: the ancient tales of tragedy and betrayal, the sudden moments of unexpected poetry:

Oh gentle wind that bloweth south

Frae where my love repaireth

Convey a kiss frae his dear mouth

And tell me how he fareth.

We knew songs by the yard in those days: songs from Oliver and Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music; sea-shanties, army songs, hymns and Christmas carols. But the Scottish ballads were the ones we returned to, brooding over the sweet sorrow of “The Craw Killed the Pussie O” or the chilling moment in “The Wife of Usher’s Well” when her three sons came back from the dead, and “their hats were made o’ the birk, o, their hats were made o’ the birk.”

It neither grew on syke nor ditch

Nor aught on ony sheugh

But at the gates o’ Paradise

That birk grew fine enou’

No one told us the meaning of “syke” or “sheugh” (a brook or rivulet; some kind of pit), but we didn’t mind. It was the feeling we craved, the enveloping atmosphere. We knew even then, at nine and eleven and thirteen, that there was nourishment in those old songs, the nourishment of blood and bone and home. And so we lay there by the fire, while the rain poured down outside, playing those scratched records over and over again.


Rory was one of the voices on those old, cracked records. The other belonged to his younger brother Alexander, always known as Eck. As young men they had traveled round the United States together, singing Scottish folk-songs and playing Southern blue. They appeared regularly at the Edinburgh Festival, and each hosted his own blues and folk-song show on television. From time to time we were allowed to stay up late and watch. But best were the family gatherings when they sang together after dinner. Eck had the truer, sweeter voice, but Rory was all exuberance and panache, delighting in a rollicking refrain like “Linten adie, loorin adie, linten adie, toorin ee” or a lugubrious one like “binorie,” leaning forward over his guitar, his pale eyes twinkling, those endless legs sprawled out across the floor.

He was a merry, antic figure, a kind of modern day Pied Piper. I remember the unlikely shirts in sixties’ pinks and mauves, the warm dry laugh, the pervasive sense of gusto. He’d swoop up from London with a car full of children, his son and daughters, cousins, friends of friends, and at once a certain giddiness would descend upon us all. Rory was always at the center, bounding up the stairs in his huge white tennis shoes, chasing us down the corridor or across the lawn, turning suddenly, threatening to tickle us, while we fled, anguished, screaming.

He could be like that with the grownups too, whooping his way down the line in “Strip the Willow,” convulsed with laughter at some reckless anecdote. But there was another, more sober side to him as well. He was both gregarious and private, modest and ambitious; lighthearted, and at the same time, intensely serious. He knew this of himself, I think, and had learned how best to handle it, moving with great sweetness and fluidity among his many selves, somehow able to balance the prankster and the poet, the artist and musician and the family man, the traveler and the much beloved friend.


Rory was born at Marchmont, in the Scottish Borders, the fourth in a family of seven children. The house was an eighteenth century one, and Rory liked to describe himself, not quite jokingly, as having been born in the eighteenth century. Certainly he was raised with both the advantages and disadvantages of the upper class. His father was a landowner and Conservative politician (also a minor poet and translator from the French), and Rory was educated in traditional fashion, first by a governess at home, and later at Ampleforth, Eton, and Trinity College, Cambridge.

He was a wonderfully deft and inventive boy; indeed, his family nickname was “Wizard.” He made kites and stilts and boats and gliders, tied his own fishing-flies, and was skilled at origami and calligraphy. He also loved to guddle or catch fish with his hands, and was passionately interested in butterflies.

I have a photograph of him at the age of ten, in the late summer of 1942. He is dressed like his older brothers in jacket, kilt, and thick, hand-knitted stockings, and like them, he has his left knee slung tidily across his right. But where his brothers’ hands are folded, or clasped loosely on their laps, Rory is holding something (a pen, a pocket-knife, a piece of balsa-wood?). He is looking off to the side and grinning, fiddling with that small, invisible object, while the wind pushes his hair back across his forehead, and blows the loose ends into a fan above his head.

What was Rory holding? What project was he planning next? No one thought of him as an artist in those days, though in fact he had already begun painting flowers under the tutelage of his French governess, Mademoiselle Phillipe. Years later, he remembered those early watercolors, of spear thistle, water avon, sweet pea. They conjure up freedom and fine weather, tickling trout, bare feet in cool water.

Later he studied Cézanne, on long dusty afternoons in the Eton College drawing schools. His teacher was Wilfrid Blunt, who was then working on THE ART OF BOTANICAL ILLUSTRATION. It was through him that Rory came to look at the great flower-painters of the past, among them Robert, Redouté, Ehret and Aubriet.

But at the time it was his eldest brother, Jamie, who was seen as the painter in the family. Jamie painted birds and landscapes with uncanny accuracy; he was also deeply immersed in jazz. As a young officer, stationed at Catterick Army Camp, not far from Rory’s school in Yorkshire, he’d stop by on visiting weekends to play jazz for him on the headmaster’s piano. The Southern Blues spoke to my heart from the time of my childhood, Rory later wrote. Leadbelly was early to become a friend and companion, as were Lester Young, Raymond Queredo, Amalia Rodriguez, Louis Armstrong, Jacques Brel, Ali Akhbar Khan. He came to modern art, he always said, largely through twentieth century music. I am glad that I was so long in learning to see, after I had learned to hear.


Rory left Eton at the age of eighteen, and served for two years in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. My grandmother’s diary chronicles his return from Egypt in May 1952. He’d rung her from the ship in Liverpool, to tell her he was back, and the next day she and my grandfather drove into Edinburgh to meet him.

“We got onto the platform through a barrier of police to see the troop train come in,” she wrote. “It was crammed with soldiers, the pipers playing and waving their bonnets. One of the most exciting and moving sights in the world.” Two days later she and my grandfather brought Rory home, “looking wonderfully well and gallant.” He wandered about all over the house and park, revisiting all his old haunts, “saying very little, but looking blissful.”

Years later, Rory wrote that he sat down and painted a rose the very day he got out of the army, finding to his surprise that [his] hand had unknowingly educated itself. My grandmother’s diary says nothing of this, though she does mention that he did a watercolor of a rose for his sister’s birthday in August, “the equal of a Redouté for brilliance and exactitude.” Clearly she delighted in his skill, writing later that month that “Pin and Nutkin” (Rory and his youngest brother, John Sebastian) “are much taken up with painting flowers, which they do too beautifully,” and again, towards the end of September, “Pin painted one of his exquisite flowers most of the day. He is trying to get a contract with Collins to illustrate a pocket flower-book, but it means 600 colored drawings, and I don’t know where he will find the time.”

Rory went off to Cambridge early in October, and the Collins project foundered. But he continued to paint, both on paper and (following Redouté), on the more expensive Italian calfskin vellum. His brother-in-law, Freddy Hesketh, owned the originals of the Redouté roses, and Rory was able to examine them at his leisure. It was through this family connection too, that he first met Sacheverell Sitwell, who soon became both friend and patron. In 1955, eight of Rory’s watercolors were published in OLD CARNATIONS AND PINKS, by C.Oscar Moreton, with Sitwell’s introduction. Others found their way into private collections; the Queen Mother, for example, owned one of his carnations, and Princess Margaret had several of his roses.

This is not as surprising as it seems. The Queen Mother was Scottish, after all, and an exact contemporary of my grandfather. Princess Margaret and Rory both loved to sing, and had a vast fund of folksongs in common. Nonetheless, Rory’s sojourns with “the Royals” were always of extremely brief duration. Cambridge was what mattered to him most. He had a glorious time there, singing and playing with the “Footlights Club,” along with Jonathan Miller and other budding luminaries. He was a teasing, colorful, theatrical figure, much loved by all his friends. But there were others who were less impressed, as Karl Miller remembers in his autobiography, REBECCA’S VEST.

“A friend of mine from Scotland went onto me about how, when his train to Cambridge had stopped at York, he had been afflicted with the fearful sight of a tall young man in an Inverness cape and a Tam o’Shanter, clad in tartan trews, a brace of pheasants over his shoulder, and in his hand a guitar, from which trailed a sky-blue ribbon: surely there could be no such person as this who was actually Scottish.”

Rory was Scottish all right, by blood, by birth, and by passionate inclination. He cherished this heritage: its songs, its natural history. But it is also true that he was not averse to using it, even to exaggerating it a little. For example he sang his ballads in broad Scots (though he spoke with an unmistakable Oxbridge accent), and took an actor’s pleasure in the various costumes that he donned along the way.

It was in this role of travelling minstrel that he and his brother Eck took off for the United States together, in the February of 1956. My grandfather kept all their letters home, copying them by hand into a bound album. Their immediate destination was New York, which struck Rory as a very exciting town – ugly, raucous, pretentious, and unselfconscious, with the most scruffy streets shouldering the richest boulevards.

They spent their first weeks with friends on East 61st Street, Eck in an attic room belonging to Alice Astor, and Rory next door with her daughter, Romana. It was a lavish, gregarious, intensely social life. At moments one might almost be living in pre-war English society with liveried servants, bell pulls, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces and what all. But what really interested them was the downtown world of jazz and “colored folk-singers,” whose music they’d been listening to, religiously, for years. Because this was the McCarthy era, many of their most valued mentors were forbidden to perform. (Pete Seeger, for example, had been described as “UnAmerican” for singing left-wing “Commie”songs). But as a couple of young foreigners, without a political axe to grind, Rory and Eck could play anywhere they wanted, from the top social gatherings to weddings, schools, night-clubs… tenements… bars.

Soon they took to the road with a couple of friends, traveling in a long downwards sweep from Washington to Atlanta, New Orleans, El Paso and Santa Fe. Rory was especially moved by the raw beauties of the south west: simply fantastic, from swampy jungle to wildly romantic desert, flanked by bright blue hills. After New Mexico, they drove north to Colorado Springs and (abandoning the car), went on alone by bus to Cripple Creek. Here, for the first time, they were employed as professional musicians, playing twice a day for a week, continuing on to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Given their youth and inexperience, the trip was surprisingly successful. They made two long-playing records, and appeared on television several times. 40 million people saw us…and we are now accosted in the street and in shops and one small boy… asked us for an autograph. They even got a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Back in London that fall, Rory found work with the BBC, playing his own, newly-minted tropical calypsos on the Tonight Show (which, briefly, made him famous). In April 1958, a month after his twenty-sixth birthday, he married his hostess on East 61st Street, American-born
Romana von Hofmannsthal, granddaughter of the Austrian poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. They had three daughters in quick succession , and in 1965, a son, Adam. For several years, Rory’s painting came a distant second to marriage and show business.


By 1964, when my family moved to Marchmont, Rory had already been gone at least ten years. But his boats and airplanes were still propped on the shelves of our schoolroom, his hand-carved Madonna stood on the table by my grandmother’s bed, and in her boudoir was the candy-striped “Box of Delights” he had made. This consisted of two miniature tableaux of painted clay and balsa-wood. In one, the weary figure of a student sat hunched over his papers under a sloping skylight, while on the floor below, miniature Christmas cards crowded the mantelpiece, and a small round man made merry over a tray of glasses and a fat black bottle. The grownups seemed to find him very funny. But as a child I always preferred the pale-faced student (or was it in fact Rory himself?) in his solitary garret.

My own father was skilled with a pencil and had illustrated several books, so for a while I thought that all grownups could draw and paint, just as all grownups could spell and manage proper joined-up writing. But even then, I remember marveling at Rory’s pictures. My favorites were a group of “flakes” from OLD CARNATIONS AND PINKS: “Paisley Gem,” “Murray’s Laced Pink,” and “William Brownhill,” whose originals hung in our drawing-room. They were crimson and white with long silvery-gray stems, and I loved their rumpled faces, sleek rounded buds, and the sudden flare of their narrow, strap-like leaves. Such beauty and precision made me shiver. It was as if the flowers themselves were shining there, beneath the glass.

Rory illustrated another flower-book in 1963, this time on the auricula. He included not just the individual blossoms and their leaves, but the delicate tangle of their roots as well. I used to stare at them for minutes at a time, trying to follow the path of different tendrils in that twisting fluid maze. Such “close-looking” was both delight and education, like the “close-listening” of the folk-songs. It was also wonderfully comforting. And there were times when I needed such comfort. My father suffered from manic depression, and, increasingly, from the ravages of alcoholism. With six children to educate, an estate to manage, and a big dilapidated house to be maintained, there was never what he thought of as “enough money.” As an anxious eldest daughter, it was all too easy to get swept up in his dramas, both real and imaginary.

In the midst of such turbulence, Rory’s presence came as an immense relief. At first I loved him for his ability to make things happen: a wild game of hide-and-seek or “rescue,” a picnic on the cliffs overlooking the sea. But as I grew older, I began to see the man himself more clearly. He was someone who knew in his bones the world that we were part of, with its tidal pull of class and family loyalties, its fierce old-fashioned obligations. But he was also a professional artist, deeply committed to his work. He painted every day. He got things done. This fact was enormously important to me.


After their marriage, Rory and Romana had set up house at 9 Tregunter Road, not far from Fulham Road in Chelsea. Rory’s life changed absolutely from then on.

He had been born the middle child of seven, the third son in a family of six brothers. British primogeniture being what it was, there had never been any expectation that he would inherit. Since his return from America, he had been living in a bachelor flat on Kinnerton Street, and working as Art Editor for the Spectator magazine. Now, fueled by his wife’s money and family connections, as well as by his own show business success, he found an entirely new world opening up around him. He started making silkscreen material with his new sister-in-law, Sylvia Guirey, designing the patterns and choosing the colors himself. He invested money in theater and paintings. He also went on writing songs (with Bernard Levin), for the Tonight Show (at that time the most-watched program in the U.K.), as well as hosting a late-night blues and folk program called Hullabaloo. He and Eck cut several more records, and continued to perform together at the Edinburgh Festival and a number of other venues, most notably the Keele Folk Festival, which Rory helped organize. All this left very little time for painting.

For several years, Rory wasn’t even sure that he wanted to be an artist. The auriculas were done on commission for C. Oscar Moreton, as the pinks and carnations had been. They were beautiful, but limited too, by the traditional framework of botanical illustration. Rory was impatient with this. He wanted to make individual portraits of flowers, not just representational ones, to honor what was imperfect and unique. He was also interested in painting flowers across time: in bud, in full maturity, and on into a blown or blowsy, dead or dying state.

Around 1962, when he was thirty, he finally tired of the ups and downs of show business, and started painting seriously again. Among those early paintings are a pair of wonderfully giddy red anemones, like two leggy girls in mini-skirts. There is also the close-up of a lily-bud, its long proboscis reaching out as if to sniff the air, its curved sides bulging in yellow-green and strange translucent red. Looking at such pieces now, it is easy to read the cultural references (the mini-skirts, the latent minimalism). But at the time, flower painting was not thought worthy of such close attention. It was a hobby, an old-world oddity. “Real artists” (e.g. Pollack and de Staël) made abstract paintings. Torn between his own gift for meticulous realism, and the current fashion for abstraction, Rory tried a little of both, and puzzled the critics at one of his early New York shows by hanging one room with flowers and another with abstract paintings. He also experimented with “table-sculptures” in clear plastic and refractive glass: miniature skyscrapers, blazing with blue-green rainbows. Later on, there was a series of “veils,” heavy canvas tarpaulins, slung on ropes, and exhibited for the sheer pleasure of their folds.

But whatever else he might be doing, Rory went on painting flowers. By the early seventies, he had added leaves and fruit and vegetables as well. I remember a gargantuan artichoke, painted in 1967. It had a bottle-green stem and stiff armor-plated leaves in purple and lime-green. Biba might have favored it, or Mary Quant. But it was an ordinary vegetable too, stumpy and vulnerable, its coarse leaves frayed and browning as it aged.

Soon after, Rory painted a series of onions, huge pinkish-brown globes in their shining paper coats, their wild roots trailing. My favorite was a glorious crimson specimen from Benares. But there were others which were not so healthy. They slumped across the page, oddly mashed and broken. One could almost smell the sour stink rising from them.

What did it mean to paint such things: crumpled mushrooms, onions, peppers, a strange little dance of dead and dying violets? Rory never said. Paintings from his 1974 show, “True Facts from Nature,” showed leaves and twigs and seed-pods lined up across the page, joined only, as critic Douglas Hall wrote later, by a “sure sense of visual interval.” It was hard not to search for meanings in those ragged hieroglyphs, hard not to try to recompose the original, elusive message. A lot goes on in a dying leaf, Rory wrote to me once. You’d be surprised.


Our correspondence started in the fall of 1973, when I was living in a boarding-house in London, and studying for my Oxbridge entrance exam. I stumbled on a handful of Rory’s poems in the Poetry Review, and wrote to him to praise them. Rory wrote back immediately. How sweet of you to write about the poems! I think it is very rare that someone in your position (i.e. niece) shd write in that way to an uncle. He then went on to praise my largeness and generosity of mind…the rarest of qualities in my opinion, only later returning to the subject at hand.

The praise flustered me, and made me cry. At the same time, I rejoiced in Rory’s warmth and writerly encouragement. I would like to see your poems and talk about them sometime if you’d like that… It’s no good comparing yourself to anyone else, the only thing is to get it down till it starts sounding recognizable in one’s own ears. After years of Chaucer and Donne and T. S. Eliot, I felt as if a door were opening at last into the present day.

In the spring of 1974, Romana’s father died, and the family flew to Vienna for the funeral. Afterwards they went to look at the house where he’d been born. Fifty yards away was the house Rilke had rented to be near his fellow-poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. As a little boy, Romana’s father would run errands between them.

I like the idea of people with like minds getting together and making an effort to see each other, Rory wrote. Far too much of one’s life is taken up in non-communication with people one has nothing in common with, don’t you think?

He went on to comment on his own artistic endeavors. My show is down, and I feel that once more I am invisible…But it has strengthened my resolve to be as much of an artist as I can. To commit myself as totally as possible to thinking and looking as an artist all the time.

What did it mean to him “to be an artist”? In later letters, mostly written from Bardrochat, the family house in Ayrshire, he did his best to spell it out. I want desperately to paint pictures that would be of this place. I have a distant vision of some sort of abstraction based on color. And again, three months later, I don’t want to make Scottish Gallery-type Scottish landscapes…all dour to appearances, all Scotch restraint…I want to make landscapes that will have the appearance of giant palettes, huge daubs and blobs of infinitely subtle colors, bumping each other out of the way like clouds blowing across the sky.

In pursuit of this dream, he spent many weeks alone at Bardrochat, drawing and painting and going for long walks across the countryside and by the sea. He also constructed a portable easel which I prop on my knees while sitting in the back of the Landrover, parked in the middle of nowhere making watery marks on Saunders paper.

Landscape painting was new to him, and the work didn’t come easy. I…end up every evening in a welter of confusion, mocked by the unspeakable clarity of the sky, the perfect balance and wholeness of the greens and ochers, blues and umbers of the countryside.

Sometimes he was able just to keep going. The only life-raft is the work done each day, which inadequate though it is, allows one to go on to the next. At other times he went back to the close-up portraits of flowers and leaves he had been doing since his boyhood. I return to my precise certainties of observed detail like a drunk to his bottle.

He was lonely on occasion, but for the most part the solitude was a deep joy to him. It really is marvelous to be alone here, really an impossible indulgence, a fantastic luxury in 1976, and one which I grasp with both hands. And again, Once one has screwed oneself up tight, the solitariness ceases to matter, and a kind of quiet frenzy sets in.

Rory accomplished a great deal in those “quiet frenzies.” For a while he switched from vellum to paper, painting a strange dreamy series of grasses and wildflowers, not unlike Dürer’s painting “The Great Piece of Turf” seen through a misty haze. He also used paper for a series of experimental water-colors called “Homage to Karl Blossfeldt.”

Blossfeldt was a German sculptor and art teacher who, like Rory, was fascinated by the business of “close-looking.” His photographs of leaves and stems and buds and tendrils (some of them magnified up to 27 times) were first published as ARCHETYPES IN ART, in 1928. Blossfeldt had intended them simply as teaching aids, but the parallels between natural and human art were unmistakable. Curling fern-fronds looked like wrought-iron tracery. Horse-chestnut shoots had faces like hand-carved totem poles.

In Rory’s paintings, an image from Blossfeldt’s portfolio (a dandelion, say, or the dry brown umbel of a garlic plant), is superimposed on a casual water-color of the Ayrshire landscape. The landscape itself is barely hinted at: the curve of a hill, a couple of trees, a ruined castle. But Blossfeldt’s image stands out proud and strong. For an impossible moment, the hills and distances are dwarfed by the outrageous architecture of the close-at-hand, as the small takes authoritative precedence over the large. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rory’s next two shows (in London in the winter of 1979-80, and in Tokyo the following spring), were both devoted to the single leaf.

They were dead leaves, dying leaves, torn and scarred, bright with hectic autumn color. Rory had been hospitalized with cancer the previous summer, and there were those who saw the leaves as a comment on this. Rory himself wrote to a friend that the leaves were just something he had to do, like a debt I have to pay, or a task I have to complete. He worked away at them all through the fall of 1979, trying to recover the time he’d lost, while his mind swirled with thoughts and memories, all the flux of the past, present and future, dreams, colors, ambitions, possibilities. As always, he dreamed of making what he called a fine, fresh, dangerous painting. It would have astonished him to know that with those dogged leaves, he was actually creating the work by which he’d be best known.

The London show, which I didn’t have any real expectations for, turned out a big success, by my standards, in that it sold out, & a couple of museums [bought work], in particular the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, which really pleased me as I love it as a museum, and it acquired recently, the entire Broughton collection of botanical books and paintings which…includes extraordinary things by Breughel, Dürer, etc.…So I am glad to be there.

In the years that remained to him, Rory continued with his leaves and flowers on vellum, as well as attempting a series of more directly autobiographical collages. He spent days going through color Xeroxes of slides he’d taken on trips, copies of old photographs of his parents, of Marchmont, of his children, recombining them with scraps of handmade paper and his own cut-up water-colors. In the spring of 1981, he produced forty-five such pictures in two months, working twelve hours a day non-stop. I am trying to finish 74 paintings by the end of July.

Whether he achieved his goal or not, I do not know. His letters of May 1981 are among the last I have of his. But it is clear that these new “Proustian pictures” were a great satisfaction to him. He felt he had found a use for the experiences of a lifetime: all the pleasure and happiness and sadness, all the weather, the nights and the days, the hours spent fishing and shooting…etc. etc. He wrote to me, quoting Bob Dylan, that at last he’d found a dump-truck to unload his head.

Meanwhile his delight in the surrounding countryside continued undiminished. Bardrochat is ridiculously beautiful, rain or shine, at this time of year, with the hawthorn like clotted cream and the river path misty with bluebells…the other night I went down to fish & just as it was getting dark I became aware of a most striking and perfect conjunction of 3 colors – it was in the shade, in very low light, and the colors glowed, like a harmony in music

luminous white of hawthorn

intense purple-blue of forget-me-not

green of grass and leaf

I had the thought that if you could find those exact colors, they would make the most incredible flag of some new country; blue and white and green…somehow the three were so unexpected together, and so every day.


It was an amazing thing to be trusted with such letters, to be let into a grownup’s life in quite that way, made witness to his private struggles and ambitions. At the time, of course, the details of Rory’s artistic pilgrimage didn’t always interest me. I skipped to the references to books and music. What was he reading? Who was he listening to? What other artists did he admire? I learned names from him: Basho, Colette, Thomas Merton; Leadbelly, Charlie Parker; Kandinsky, Klee. I drank in the delight of his company, following him out into the cold when he came up to shoot at Marchmont, trudging round to his London studio for lunch, pestering him with questions about art and Buddhism and modern American poetry. If he was, as he once wrote to me, inescapably and ineluctably and irreversibly of [his]time and of [his] class and of [his] background, he was also (in my mind at least) a brilliant escape-artist, the one member of the tribe who’d got away.

I was keen to follow in his footsteps, though I was not at all sure how. After my Oxbridge entrance exam (which got me into King’s), I had spent some months in Thailand, working at a mission for people with leprosy. Once I arrived at Cambridge, I began to study anthropology, with a special emphasis on India and the Far East. The Provost gave me a small grant to go to Laos, and I hoped to make it to Bhutan the following year. But Rory, who had been there, was not encouraging. The difficulty lies in the fact that if you are in the country, you have to be someone’s guest, for there is nowhere to stay, no hotels, and if you travel you have to be accompanied and someone has to pay for transport, food etc. (which is surprisingly expensive).

In the end I had neither the cash nor the professional backing to go to Bhutan. But fired by Rory’s example, and impatient with academia, I took a year off Cambridge anyway, and the following spring set off traveling round the United States, visiting friends and acquaintances from New York to San Francisco.

Rory was the one who gave me the money for the plane ticket (generously dismissing it as a twenty-first birthday present). He also contacted several of his friends for me, and came up with various places where I could stay. When I returned home two months later, filled with giddy stories of my adventures, he wrote in gratitude to his good friend, the painter David Novros. She’s a different person, and as far as I can see it is almost all due to you and J. and your great kindness, tolerance, interest and hospitality…I tell you, it’s made her life.

There are certain experiences which do indeed, “make your life,” and Rory was right, America was one of them for me. I felt a welcome there, an ease, a spontaneity, which I’d never experienced before. Suddenly I was my own person, not my father’s daughter or my uncle’s niece, but my own urgent questing self. I went to art galleries and book stores, to parks and poetry readings. I stared out of the grimy windows of the Greyhound bus at Arizona, at New Mexico. I talked all night to complete strangers. Suddenly it was OK to be a woman making her own way in the world, OK to ask questions, investigate, explore. Compared to the narrow, class-bound world I’d grown up in, it was immensely liberating.


Rory had experienced a parallel liberation some twenty years earlier, on his own journey to the United States. And much as he loved London and Bardrochat, he still welcomed the chance to get away, to become a traveler again, tranquil and anonymous. In fact he said as much in one of his letters, quoting en passant from Lin Yutang. The true motive of travel should be to become lost and unknown.

He was by no means averse to family holidays: skiing with Romana and the children in Austria, flying out to Greece or Italy or the American southwest. But as the children grew older, he began to travel further afield, to Bhutan and Afghanistan and the Andaman Islands, to India and Nepal. He was deeply appreciative of these opportunities, fishing for salmon in the gorgeous unpolluted waters of Bhutan, catching butterflies, painting flowers. Here, for example, he writes to David Novros: I had a really fascinating month in Nepal…[We] set up a fishing camp for Mahseer in this unbelievable place, with the jungle at [our]back and the whole of the Annapurna range gleaming [on] the horizon 70 miles away.

The Mahseer they saw were small, but they did catch Goonch, big ugly fuckers like insane catfish, very good eating, no bones – and trekked in the jungle, full of birds, butterflies, tiger tracks, bears and everything else you can think of. Every morning two Shahin falcons (Eastern peregrines) put on displays of flying like the Battle of Britain, catching swallows. I caught 62 different butterflies. I swear I’m not exaggerating, it must be about the most beautiful place on earth.

Afghanistan was a great pleasure to him too: I must have got all over it, mostly by 4 wheel drive Toyota…Fished, photographed, caught butterflies. It is the most rugged, harsh and beautiful place imaginable…The archeology is fascinating, as it is the melting pot of every civilization…from 1,000 BC onwards, and half of it is unknown, undug, unexplored.

It is easy to criticise these elaborate journeys as just another exercise in colonial self-indulgence. But despite the omnipresent camera, the field-glasses, and the butterfly-net, Rory did not travel simply as a tourist, accumulating major sights and specimens for an audience back home. Instead he went as a pilgrim, a participant, striving to look, to paint, to name, to understand, always more deeply and comprehensively. Bhutan and Afghanistan were particularly moving to him. He loved the character of the people, their courage and chivalry and sense of humor. Indeed, as Douglas Hall has written, “It was as if the culture of these places (and the friendships he made there)…reassured him that the values of his inherited landscape – literal and metaphorical – still existed in the world.”

Rory admired the Sung painters too, and identified strongly with Taoism. Years later, when the Soviet troops invaded his beloved Afghanistan, he remembered those early painters and tried to draw strength from their example. The International news gets worse and worse, & still I sit and paint leaves. I feel like those Chinese artists who, in ages of great barbarism and unrest, painted images & wrote poems in which metaphor described the tragic events around them so that the message was passed on to later ages in a simple, cryptic fashion. A dying leaf should be able to carry the weight of the world.

But the dying leaf would always be his own, picked up in Smiddy Wood, Bardrochat, or on Redcliffe Square in London. However much Rory was inspired by other cultures, he never for one moment tried to imitate them. For him, being a painter was very much tied up with being a native, attending, patiently and carefully, to a particular place, its leaves and flowers, its gradually unfolding landscape. And despite his love of traveling, he remained Scottish to the core. We should all live with a vision hidden inside us, he wrote once, like Loch Enoch hidden in the cradle of the Galloway hills. It comes as no surprise that the image is so entirely local.


I was seventeen in the fall of 1973, and Rory was almost a quarter of a century older than me. But we kept on writing to each other for almost a decade, from Scotland, London, New York and California. From time to time, there’d also be a present or an excursion. Rory made one painting especially for me (a water color of an onion, with the tangled roots I loved), and gave me artist’s proofs of others: a second onion (a lithograph this time), and an etching of a leaf, like a human hand outstretched to show its wrinkled, quilted palm. He asked me round to listen to music, came up to visit me in Cambridge. It was an easy, unselfconscious connection, this “diagonal friendship” that somehow developed between us. But for good or ill, Rory was also part of my immediate family: my uncle, my father’s younger brother. This role was much more difficult for him.

Looking back at his letters and my own journals too, I see the places where “Uncle Rory” suddenly takes center stage, shouldering aside the solitary artist and traveler, the dreamy, appreciative countryman. I see his awkwardness as he tries to behave responsibly, for instance in this reference to my sister Kate, who at seventeen was making her own way as an art student in London.

I saw Kate the other day and she struck me as slightly stoned (she was very sweet with it). I do hope she isn’t wasting her time when she could be developing that marvelous talent of hers. I feel so utterly incompetent in almost every way myself, and often ponder the years which could have been directed towards a deepening of appreciation and understanding of art…Bopping around on the drugs scene can give you the impression of doing something exciting, or dangerous, but there simply is no recorded instance of it improving one mentally or physically. So much for the voice of the 19th century, broadcasting on 232 meters on the medium waveband.

The wry remark at the end is typical of Rory, as is the quiet reference to his own travails; he had no wish, as he said in a later missive, to overstep his uncle bounds. But it was not so easy to practice such restraint. His eldest brother, Jamie, had died in 1971, and a second brother, David, collapsed in 1976, both agonizingly young. Meanwhile my father, Robin, was holed up at Marchmont, increasingly at the mercy of his glooms. Rory went to visit, and was horrified by what he found. I think he’s in much worse shape than when I last saw him, and I left with a sense of despair that anyone can do anything to help him – he seems determined to do away with himself. And again, some eighteen months later, describing a cousin’s wedding: [Your father] was in terrible shape there, it has to be said, drunk, and incapable of coherent thought. It is so sad…Your ma sails above it all sustained by her own private band of angels.

My father died of a heart attack the following year, and the family gathered in Scotland for his funeral. Rory was strange and overwrought, awash with guilt and rage and noisy self-assertive grief. At first he tried to be funny in the usual way, greeting my mother, “Hello Widow!” (which not surprisingly made her cry), and then he ranted at us all about self-indulgence, before finally breaking down and bursting into tears. “I loved him! I loved him like you all do,” he said. One night I stayed up with him till four thirty in the morning, listening to his anguished analysis of family history: money, houses, brothers, wives, the long entangled story of inheritance and loss.

Still, it was good to begin to piece all this together, just as it was good to hear Rory’s description of my youthful mother, “a wild columbine grown in a mist under pine trees,” and later to receive from him a detailed letter in which he struggled to articulate his understanding of my parents’ marriage:

Your mother…ah! I don’t know, it’s the subject of a large book…I’ve thought a great deal about the Wa and her, not so much about Biddy; indeed, I find it hard to think of her in isolation…When they were first married, he was the Roi Soleil; he made all the decisions, called all the shots, and she never questioned anything, she was the absolute paradigm of the contented and quiescent Catholic wife, and she never ventured out into the rest of the family on her own account.

As, for infinitely complex reasons, he began to lose his grip on life, I think she went through absolute hell... and couldn’t seek help from the rest of the family for fear of increasing his paranoia. Eventually she had to simply attend at his dissolution, a truly appalling experience.

Painful as it was to read such letters, there was a relief to it as well. For once I was not struggling to make sense of the unwieldy saga all by myself. Rory was there too, to interpret and translate.

In the months after my father’s death, he shouldered yet more family responsibilities in the form of my brother, James, who already, alas, had the makings of an addict. I wish to God he wasn’t going to inherit Marchmont or anything else, Rory wrote to me privately. He’s like a walking advertisement for the banning of inherited wealth.

Three weeks later, he wrote again, with further revelations. It turns out that [James] has been main-lining heroin for months, is cross-addicted to alcohol, has (slightly) damaged his liver, and is in a hell of a mess (even worse than I thought).

A clinic was found for James, and the family conferences went on. Meanwhile I was away in California, out of reach of anything but letters. I remember opening one from Rory to find a crisp $50 bill, left over from a recent trip to the U.S. He persisted with such kindnesses despite the fierce demands of his own life (he had his first operation for colon cancer, the removal of a malignant growth in 1979), and his complicated dealings with the rest of my family. For whatever reason, our relationship remained very simple and direct, sturdy and affectionate and reliable.


In March 1982, I visited my cousin Sam (Rory’s daughter) in New York, and learned from her that Rory’s cancer had returned. The following month, he took off for Australia for six weeks of intensified radiotherapy, accompanied by his wife, Romana. At first the treatment seemed to provide some relief. But by late May, a new series of symptoms began to manifest. Rory was giddy and nauseous, he had difficulty focusing. By midsummer he'd been found to have a brain tumor.

An ocean and a continent away, I did my best to keep in touch. I was afraid of seeming to intrude if I wrote to him too often. In the end I decided to send one postcard a week, a cheery, newsy postcard, written with no expectation of an answer. In one of them, I must have told Rory that I had finally graduated from Berkeley with a Master’s degree in English. Here (in its entirety) is the letter he sent back, written on the soft blue paper of the London Clinic.

Darling MC


Sorry I haven’t written to you

Head in bad shape can’t

made words work. I having an

operation next wekee.

Better soon. Love lots to you.

Not as bad as it took as it sounds.

Much love

& congrats darling MC,



That September, I went to visit Rory at Tregunter Road. He was very thin, his face gaunt, and there was a scar on the back of his head, visible under the fine brown hair. He’d had a difficult night, giddy and sick, with a thunderingly bad headache. Nevertheless, he rose to the occasion, answering questions about his own condition, and talking cheerfully about family matters. He mentioned the brain tumor, for which he’d had an operation in July, “an interruption,” he called it, “just when things were on the mend.” He remarked, mournfully, that he wished he hadn’t wasted so much time. I disagreed with this, telling him outright what a relief it had been to have someone in the family who worked and made things happen, praising him directly as I’d never done before.

The light faded as we sat, and he soon dismissed me. “I won’t detain you.” I didn’t want to be unduly gloomy, but it was clear to me his prospects were not good. Already I could see people translating their impressions of him into eulogies. At the same time I found the visit oddly heartening. It was as if I’d lost him when I first heard of the cancer, and found him again that evening: funny, courageous, generous, sympathetic, good.

I rang him a month later, just before I left for New York. By then a second brain tumor had been diagnosed, this one inoperable. It was pressing on the optic nerve, and Rory was seeing double. He told me the nerves might not recover even if the radiation made the tumor disappear. “What shall I do, M.C?” he asked. “Shall I write songs?” There was despair in his voice, and utter weariness. I remember mumbling something about working with his hands. But of course there was no proper answer. Everything was coming to an end. Sam later told me she’d seen waves of sorrow pass over him as he began to empty his beloved London studio. He’d been working there for fifteen years. And now the place was up for sale.

Oddly enough, Rory had been writing a letter to my mother at the time I rang, so for once I have his record of our talk as well as mine. I had a really nice telephone call from M.C., he wrote. She’s off to New York like a well found little ocean-going tug-boat, everything stored shipshape. I do love her.


I arrived in New York at the beginning of October, and found myself a sublet on the Lower East Side, and an unlikely job making Christmas ornaments at a factory out on Long Island. The ornaments were in fact miniature mannequins: girls in green velvet dresses and matching Tam o’shanters, eighteenth century gentlemen in top-hats and brocade, a set of Santa Clauses, red-cheeked and jolly. We called them “the little people,” but some of them were as much as six feet tall.

My particular responsibility were the leprechauns or “pixies.” I dressed them in bright green velvet, glued wooden soles to their feet, and stapled metal rods onto the soles. Then I fitted their feet into red velvet shoes, and stuffed them with acrylic cotton. It was an amazing place to work. You’d look up from the staple-gun to see a man hurrying past with an armful of headless dolls, or a woman earnestly lacquering a neat black nylon wig. Meanwhile the air was full of sawdust from the machine that made dolls’ feet, along with steam from the steam-generator, and the unmistakable aroma of white glue. Great trucks roared by outside, and the lobby where we sat to take our breaks (a quarter of an hour each morning and afternoon, half an hour for lunch), was thick with dust and debris. You could scarcely hear yourself think. The drill whined, the loudspeaker blared, the radio gave off erratic blasts of Spanish music.

I was about three days into this new life (gray, already, with the noise and the exhaustion), when a friend of Rory’s called to tell me he had died. An aunt gave me the money to go home for the funeral, and I left almost immediately. Alone on the plane, I scribbled notes in my journal about Rory, how on the one hand he’d been my “Scottish uncle,” and on the other, of course, the traveler and explorer, buoyant and classless and inspiring. A rush of images came back: Rory driving fast in the Ferrari south, singing to us. His thick shooting stockings, well-shaped legs. His warm, half-mocking “M.C.” – the affection in it, the banter.

I made a list of the things we’d done together: lunch in London, once or twice; a Japanese movie; an Indian sitar concert at the Albert Hall; those endless conversations.

It didn’t seem as if it added up to very much: a handful of colored pebbles snatched from the torrent of that extraordinarily busy life. And yet, even then, I somehow knew that it had been enough. “I have liked him a great deal,” I wrote bleakly in my journal. Whatever the message was, it had been handed over.

I took a train up to Scotland the next day, and my mother and I drove over to Bardrochat, with nine new wreaths in the back of the car. Fresh from the dingy glamour of Manhattan, I was overcome by the beauty of the Border countryside. “It was a magnificent sunny morning, the woods were lit up in pale yellow and orange and lime green, and you could see and see and see – shadows passing over the hills, a scatter of seagulls like bits of dirty paper, the tall silvery trunks of the trees. So many little moments…Looking from a distance the sky was rich in clouds: depth on depth of them: gray and white and creamy, silver, sheer.”

We reached Bardrochat about lunch time. I got an attack of what we used to call “gravel fever” at the sight of all the shiny parked cars, a child’s panic at the encroaching grown up world. I’d been feeling tidy and self-sufficient in my borrowed shirt, my boots and cashmere jersey. But once inside the house I felt tiny and stringy, dwarfed by all the huge adult women with their bosoms and rings and proper calves. I hunched among them, small and inelegant.

It was only then I learned in detail about Rory’s death. Ill and exhausted as he was, the brain tumor swollen to the size of a tennis-ball, he’d somehow managed to slip out of Tregunter Road unnoticed, and walk the long walk to South Kensington tube station. There he’d climbed a fence, and thrown himself in the path of an oncoming train. One imagines he died instantly. His brothers, Eck and John Sebastian, were asked to identify the body. There’d been a long bruise, my aunt told me, running down the side of his head.

I remembered my sister Kate’s description, dating from the previous week: hair falling out, sunken face, left eye twitching, the gaze not properly focused. He had told one of his friends that he felt as if he had a devil in him. Sam said he’d looked like a container for a sadness too deep to imagine. But there’d been tremendous courage too, at a time when nothing at all was under his control, not his body or his spirit or even his mind; the courage to take his life in his own hands, the willed finality of that decision. Even in her grief she was able to see that, and to praise it.

Mass began, and I knelt and prayed with the rest. The coffin stood in the corner window: a narrow casket in a pale bleached wood, with gold clasps and brown silken tassels. Later it was hoisted into the Landrover, and we all followed the piper down to the graveyard, where my two brothers, two boy cousins, and two remaining uncles lowered it into the newly dug grave.

Afterwards we went back to the house for coffee and drinks, and the usual funeral spread of chicken and salad and roast beef. At some point in the afternoon, a group of us drove off to the coast, to wander by the sea and pick up stones and shells. There was a shadow in the clouds like a man striding, his cloak spread out behind. The sun threw glory-rays into the sea, which was otherwise grim and gray. Sam said that Rory had been put in charge of the weather, and he’d thrown all the levers. Sun over Ayrshire: sun, sun, sun.


The next day, Sam went up to the old garage which had been Rory’s studio, and found herself on a little path she’d never seen before. She felt such happiness that she could hardly believe it. It enveloped her as she walked: joyful, tranquil, utterly reassuring. Then the bell rang for lunch, and at once it disappeared. But she said she felt quite differently afterwards. She’d been planning to go down to the graveyard that afternoon, and she didn’t go, no longer needed to.

A few days later, I went to visit her in London. She had taken on the task of cleaning out Rory’s studio there. It was big and light and airy, and it was chock-a-block with things: heaters and desks and books and cassettes; Navajo blankets, kitchen utensils. Sam was busy finding homes for all of it; calling Green & Stone (the local art shop), talking to friends and relatives who might have storage space. She allowed me to take away a handful of books and cassettes, as well as a few other oddments: a couple of old coins, a carved soapstone animal.

1/4 past 2 in the morning. Talking to Sam till now. Comfort from her intelligence. Enjoyment of her courage and clarity. Gratitude for the rediscovery of Rory which ensued. I read his poems and his journal, sat in his studio, looked through his books and cassettes – and felt – at last – that I began to realize who I’d lost, what I had liked and loved.”

In the months that followed, back in New York City, I thought of Rory often. I bought a Walkman that winter, and I played his songs over and over as I went about my business, trudging across Broadway to the sway of “Speed, Bonnie Boat,” or the sprightly lilt of “Marie’s Wedding.” I also found him here and there in the books Sam had given me, in Neruda particularly, and in Wallace Stevens’ long poem, “The Man With the Blue Guitar”:

I am a native in this world

And think in it as a native thinks,


Native, a native in the world

And like a native think in it.

It could not be a mind, the wave

In which the watery grasses flow

And yet are fixed as a photograph,

The wind in which the dead leaves blow.

Here I inhale profounder strength

And as I am, I speak and move

And things are as I think they are

And say they are on the blue guitar.

It used to seem to me as if those words were being spoken by Rory himself. He was a guitar player, after all, and a painter of “watery grasses” and “dead leaves.” Again and again I’d seen him “hunched / Above the arrowy, still strings, / The maker of a thing yet to be made.


In one of his letters to David Novros, Rory had spoken longingly of a life of utter solitude. I wouldn’t mind living here, he wrote from Nepal. Just sit in a single room in Kathmandu and paint great miniatures.

But the “monkish illustrator,” as Karl Miller put it, was only one of Rory’s many selves. For the other characters within him, friendship was a crucial pleasure. Given his own background, and the privileged world he’d married into, it would have been easy to ensconce himself for life among the aristocracy. But this he refused to do. His artist-friends were essential to him, in all their extravagant variety, and it is clear that he met each one on his own terms: talking painting with his painter friends like David Novros and Jim Dine; jazz and folk music with George Melly; poetry with Alastair Reid and Kenneth Koch. “He welcomed me into his house and life as people do in books,” said R.B. Kitaj years later. “No one could forget him or his smiling, beaming face.”

Even casual acquaintances remembered him with fondness. For Pam Christie he was “warm and leggy and accessible.” She describes driving back from EspaÒola after a raucous evening, Rory dandling her infant son upon his knee, and singing lustily all the way. “I remember thinking it was pretty sweet of the laird to so regale the bairn.”

Rory was always glad of an excuse to celebrate; he had wonderful parties, for example, at Tregunter Road. I remember the downstairs drawing-room crowded with people, and Ravi Shankar at the far end, playing the sitar. But conversation was what he loved most: rich, allusive, and exploratory conversation. We all have what I would call Heart Groups, he wrote. And by that I mean a widening personal circle of love and affection, starting with our closest and dearest and dying out in the shallows of distant acquaintanceship.

His pleasure in letters and letter-writing allowed him to maintain such “conversations” with a surprisingly wide number of people. Goodness I do enjoy getting letters! he wrote to me once. I think the only reason I write letters is in the hopes of getting them back: and basically it makes no odds what the letter is like, short or long, coherent or incoherent…

His own, of course, were always remarkably coherent, and legible, written in a gorgeous, tiny, clear script. They were also, if at all possible, funny, even in the direst of circumstances. Here, for example, he writes to David Novros from Wembly, Australia, where he had gone in search of cancer treatment:

[The doctor] has developed a technique where he shoots you full of insulin, so you more or less go into a coma, then he cooks you in a sort of microwave oven. Mind you, this has nothing to do with the cancer treatment, he just gets his kicks that way: the cancer treatment consists of taking you out into the Gibson desert at full moon, then you all strip off and paint each other with the ashes of the Wurra-Wurra plant, and dance around hitting each other over the head with aboriginal clubs called Woolimbongs. Only the guys with cancer are allowed to take part in this ritual, and if you weren’t terminal before you sure are when it’s all over. He claims more or less 100% cure rate. As he remarked to me the other day, “Kill? Cure? What’s the diff, sport?”

The deliciously elaborated joke is typical of Rory, as is the keen ear for a new idiom. He was always a gifted mimic. Cornered in remotest New Mexico by two literary types from Manhattan, unwelcome friends of friends, he pretended so successfully to be a British colonel of the old school (all “rah-rah” and “bloody wops”), that the victims disappeared posthaste. This flair for the dramatic had long been apparent in his clothes as well. As a young man he went to the Pony Club dance dressed up as Sherlock Holmes (no doubt enveloped in that same Inverness cape Karl Miller mentions), and a glance at family photographs reveals a slew of equally colorful costumes: bow-tie and blazer and dark glasses in a jokey Cambridge line-up; jeans and T-shirt (in wildly clashing stripes) on a trip to Provincetown with Jim Dine; sarong and bamboo wreath on holiday in Bhutan. Lastly, and for me most poignantly, there is the picture taken just before he died, in which he wears a heavy silken dressing-gown in red and orange, topped by a multicolored turban. His glasses are propped half-way down his bony nose, and he is working, gazing at a sketch-pad on his knee, jaunty and surprising to the last.

When Rory died, in October 1982, an exhibition of his paintings was hanging at the Wave Hill Gallery in the Bronx: “Ten leaves, a pepper and an onion.” Day after day, his friends made the long trek out by bus and subway and commuter train to see the work for one last time. The room was like a shrine, said Peter Sauer, then the director there. All month the friends kept coming.


For a short time in Berkeley, during the 1980s, I made a living as a floor-refinisher. Running up the stairs to the bathroom in one particularly splendid house, I caught sight of two or three of Rory’s pictures on the wall. “My uncle did those,” I told the owner excitedly. “Those are my uncle’s paintings!” She stared at me disbelievingly, this grimy girl in workman’s overalls and heavy boots. Who was I trying to fool?

The world seemed chillier without Rory in it, less safe, less populated altogether. I missed the love and good advice that he had given me, the level of wise professionalism. Alone in New York, working at an adult literacy job out in Coney Island, it seemed impossible that I would ever make a living as a writer. One night, especially desperate for some kind of break, I called up to him as I lay in bed, “Rory! You’ve got to help me Rory. This is just too difficult!”

The next morning, I happened to ring Teachers & Writers Collaborative. I’d talked to their office manager lots of times, but this time a man called Ron Padgett answered the phone. I gave him my name, and he paused for a moment. “Are you by chance any relation of Rory McEwen?”

I went for an interview, filled out some forms, and for once my skills and interests were appropriate. Soon I was working as a writer in the New York City public schools, as well as at the T&W office in Union Square. I began to publish bits and pieces in The Nation and the Village Voice. I had a base, a literary community, a small-scale world from which to reach out and explore.

In the years since then, I have returned to Rory often, looking at his paintings, listening to his music, rereading that thick envelope of letters. I am forty-one now, as old as he was when we first started writing to each other. But the conversation isn’t over yet. There is always more to notice, more to see and say. Traveling in Colorado recently, I saw meadows full of columbine, Indian paintbrush, Western fringed gentian, flowers Rory would have loved. I wanted to tell him about them, to point out my discoveries. Instead, I read some pages from this essay at a gathering in Crestone, and passed around a couple of his catalogues for people to admire. Slowly they turned the pages, from the roses and carnations painted by that young student of twenty-one, through the leaves and vegetables and grasses of the sixties and seventies, to the blazing open-throated gentian painted in the last year of his life.

It is the leaves that I myself return to, following Rory’s eye and skilful hand across the network of tiny veins, the torn and ragged places, until each leaf glows in its own unmistakable specificity: the jagged red skyscraper of staghorn sumac, picked up on Fifth Avenue and 86th Street; the speckled alder from Kew Gardens, with the curious initial scrawled across it by some burrowing worm; the white oak leaf, also from Kew, half of it a lively yellow-green, the rest a withered brown.

What I might so easily have glanced at and discarded, an ordinary leaf on an ordinary sidewalk, is charged, through Rory’s clarifying intervention, with its own revelatory “now.” It is as if each leaf becomes a holy thing, infinitely fragile perhaps, but infinitely precious too: a map to a particular way of being in the world, a guide to the country of looking.

Riding on the intensity of Rory’s gaze – his exuberance, his discipline – I see things in his painted leaves I’ve never seen before, and they return me, marveling, to the world outside the gallery. It sounds like a paradox, but his ability to paint those dying leaves is to me a validation of his “greening power,” the viriditas of the alchemists, what Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” I see it in Rory’s paintings, hear it in his voice: the bubbling greeny-gold in him, the charm and laughter and generosity, the hard-won lightness of spirit.

In the Hans Andersen fairy tale, on which Rory based the “Box of Delights” he gave his mother, a student sits reading in an attic out of a torn old book. As he reads, a sunbeam shoots from between the pages, and rapidly expands into an enormous broad-stemmed tree. Every leaf on that tree is green and fresh, every flower is like a graceful girlish head, and every fruit is like a glittering star. Music starts up out of nowhere – “such a delicious melody” – and even after the student has retired to bed, that music still plays on.

Fruit and flower and leaf all flourishing together; the student in the attic; the music “hiding in the air.” In this way has Rory’s influence impinged.


He was a braw gallant

and he played at the ba’

Oh the Bonnie Earl o’ Murray

Was the flo’er among them a’


Oscar Moreton’s book on the auricula, which was published by the Ariel Press in 1964, includes seventeen of Rory’s colored plates. One of these flower portraits is labeled “Rory McEwen (Blue Self).” It is not an especially striking or dramatic flower; on the contrary, it is the smallest auricula in the book. The petals are a deep bluish-purple, with a pure white ring or “eye.” Pale yellow anthers crowd the central core. The leaves are green and mealy and (one imagines) soft to the touch; the dun-colored roots spin out across the page in the usual intricate swirl. You wouldn’t notice this, unless you happened to be looking out for it, but at the furthermost tip of the root is a tiny curling “R” – Rory’s own, inevitable signature.

When I think of Rory now, I think of that “blue self,” the blue-violet light that burned in him, modest and private and immensely dedicated. I think of him after he died, floating in the white space between the worlds, as his leaves and flowers floated; seen, seen utterly, with the loving clarity of that conscientious eye. He painted flowers, he wrote, as a way of getting as close as possible to the truth, my truth of the time in which I live. It was a troubled and turbulent time, and he did not pretend otherwise. But then again, a dying leaf should be able to carry the weight of the world.

In the ancient Celtic tradition, true riches are measured not in dollars and cents, but in a certain inner abundance: a knowledge of land and language, a store of jokes and chants and songs and stories. According to such criteria, Rory was a wonderfully wealthy man. He belonged to Scotland, to the countryside of his birth, as few are privileged to do. He knew its flowers and trees and birds, its culture and history. He paid tribute to it, often. But at the same time he knew how to leave, to explore, to draw from other, less familiar sources. He wanted, he once said, to make art that is transcendental, that acts like a highway sign pointing towards an invisible country that exists everywhere and for everyone, if they could [only] see it or feel it. I imagine it as that same country whose flag glowed like a harmony in music:

luminous white of hawthorn

intense purple-blue of forget-me-not

green of grass and leaf.

It was a country of which he had long been a citizen.




click on each image for a larger view


This piece could not have been written without the “sacred space” provided by Parker Huber, and the generosity of numerous other people. Many thanks to David Novros for letting me see the letters Rory sent to him, to Ron Padgett, Alastair Reid, Alexander and John Sebastian McEwen for making time to meet with me and talk; and to my friends and family, especially Nina Newington, Sarah Rabkin, Edite Cunha and Paula Panich, for close-reading of the manuscript. C.McE.



Wilfrid Blunt, SLOW ON THE FEATHER (Salisbury, Wilts, U.K: Michael Russell Publishing Ltd., 1986)

Wilfrid Blunt, THE ART OF BOTANICAL ILLUSTRATION: An Illustrated History (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover
      Publications, 1994)

RORY McEWEN. Preface, Fenella Chrichton. (Taranman, 236 Brompton Rd., London SW3 2BB, 1979. For the
     show 12 December 1979 to 14 January 1980)

Eileen Dunlop and Anthony Kamm, eds., THE SCOTTISH COLLECTION OF VERSE TO 1800 (Glasgow, Richard
     Drew Publishing, 1985)

Douglas Hall, essay in RORY McEWEN: THE BOTANICAL PAINTINGS (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and
     Serpentine Galley, London, 1988)

Nicholas Luard, “The Envy of His Generation,” The Independent Magazine, August 1988


Selected Exhibitions:

1962 Durlacher Bros., New York Rory McEwen

1964 Andre Weill Gallery, Paris, Rory McEwen

Hunt Botanical Library, Pittsburgh Contemporary Botanical Art and Illustration

National Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh International Botanical Congress

The Gateway Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Exhibition: Paintings by Rory McEwen

1965 Durlacher Bros., New York Rory McEwen

1966 Douglas & Foulis Gallery, Edinburgh Rory McEwen: Recent Paintings & Drawings

1967 Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinbugh Festival Exhibition: Fifty-Three Contemporary Painters

Byron Gallery, New York Rory McEwen

1968 Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh Rory McEwen/Alan Wood

Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf Prospect 68

1969 Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh Rory McEwen: Festival Exhibition of New Structures

1970 Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh Rory McEwen: Festival Exhibition: Veils

1971 Scottish Arts Council Art Spectrum, Scotland

1972 Redfern Gallery, London Rory McEwen: Paintings, Drawings

Sonnabend Gallery, New York Rory McEwen

1974 Redfern Gallery, London Rory McEwen: True Facts from Nature, Recent Paintings

Tooth's Gallery, London Critic's Choice: Marina Vaizey

1975 Oxford Gallery, Oxford Rory McEwen: A Month in the Country -- Watercolours

1976 Redfern Gallery, London Rory McEwen: Paintings and Watercolours

1977 Oxford Gallery, Oxford Rory McEwen: Aspects of Nature

1978 ICA, London Critic's Choice: John McEwen

1979 Taranman Gallery, London Rory McEwen

1980 Nihonbashi Gallery, Tokyo Rory McEwen

1981 Redfern Gallery, London Rory McEwen: Collages with Butterflies

Fischer Fine Art, London The Real British: An anthology of the new realism in British Painting

1982 Staempfli Gallery, New York Rory McEwen: Recent Paintings and Collages

Wave Hill, New York Rory McEwen: Ten Leaves, A Pepper and an Onion

1983 Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Pittsburgh 5th International Exhibition of

Rory McEwen: “Old English Florist Tulip, 1962” 

Catalogue, The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh Rory McEwen: 'The Botanical Paintings

British Library National Sound Archive C544 - Rory McEWEN UK/USA recordings featuring McEwen (guitarist) and various performers made during the 1960s. C544/1-19 (reel tapes)

George Dix Papers , Beineke Library, Yale. Correspondence, catalogs, lists of works, misc.

Douglas Cooper Papers, Getty Museum. Correspondence 1939-1984


Koninklijke Bibliotheek National Library of the Netherlands  Wilfrid Blunt. Tulips and Tulipomania. London, The Basilisk Press, 1977. Edition of 515 copies. Copy bound by Jean Gunner. “The tulip is found on Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, especially still lifes, not only because it was a popular flower, but also because of its symbolic meaning: the fast wilting flower stood for ‘vanitas vanitatum’, or vanity of vanities, in the words of the Preacher (1:2).

“Jean Gunner knew about all this when she was commissioned by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek to make a bookbinding and chose this book. It deals with tulipomania and has reproductions of delicate paintings of different kinds of tulips, made by Rory McEwen.”

Joseph Beuys in Scotland, 1970. More than 200 photographic images and video, with commentary by Richard Demarco in an interactive CD-ROM display - a digital exhibition documenting Beuys' first visit to Scotland and its Celtic world in May 1970, when Richard Demarco led him to the Moor of Rannoch and Argyll. Beuys returned to Scotland in August 1970 to install The Pack at Edinburgh College of Art, together with photographic documentation of his performance actions in a work later titled Arena. These works were Beuys' contribution to the Strategy: Get Arts exhibition of contemporary German art presented by the Demarco Gallery in collaboration with the D¸sseldorf Kunsthalle. From 26-30 August 1970 Beuys performed Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) The Scottish Symphony with Henning Christiansen and Rory McEwen.

Evelyn L. Kraus, The Picture Garden, a history of European botanical illustration 

“The Dutch, although better known for their lavish paintings of floral miscellany by such artists as Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), were also capable of the precise and scientific botanical study in the French manner in their tulip catalogs. Around 1630 vast speculation in tulip bulbs, based upon hoped-for color changes in the flower due to influences on the plant chromosomes, took place. Great fortunes were made and lost with equal rapidity but the lasting legacy to us are magnificent albums of watercolors recording the splendid varieties of tulips achieved at that time. This type of painting and resulting prints has remained popular into our own time as can be seen in the work of Rory McEwen (1932-1982) published as recently as 1977.”

Cambridge Footlights 1952-1956: former members.

Bob Dylan Chronicles: 1963 January 2/3: Dylan visits Rory McEwen and meets up with Eric von Schmidt, Richard Farina and Ethan Signer. McEwen also takes Dylan to meet Robert Graves.

Beatles Chronicles March 12, 1969:
-- George and Pattie attend the `Piscis' party thrown by Rory McEwen.

Rory & Alex McEwen & Isla Cameron Folksong Jubilee His Master's Voi CLP 1220 Folk LPs

Smithsonian Folkways Records McEwen, Rory and Alex - Great Scottish Ballads (1956) F-6927 - Scottish Songs and Ballads (1957) F-6930


©Text, Christian McEwen. ©Images, Estate of Rory McEwen, with the kind permission
 of Romana von Hofmannsthal McEwen.



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