Dorothy A.W. McEwan 1925-2017
It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Dorothy McEwan, the founder of the McEwan Gallery. She died peacefully at home, surrounded by family, on December 19 2017 and would have been 93 today, January 15 2018. We have posted below a short montage of photos we made for the crematorium service, for those who were unable to attend the service, and underneath is the tribute paid by Malcolm McEwan, Dorothy’s eldest son.
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Baldarroch Crematorium, 5 Jan 2018 (icy conditions)
Mum would have worried for everyone on this ice. She would have called it off!
The greatest tribute we can give Mum is that she showed the same qualities to all of us. These crossed all boundaries and I hope what I say will resonate with you as we remember what a special person she was.
First, a brief resume: Dorothy was born almost exactly 93 years ago. She used to laugh, actually I think she was a bit miffed, about the fact that her husband was named after his father’s favourite warhorse Peter, whilst she was named after the make of comb her mother used. Don’t worry, I think I was named after a king!
She was one of five children, a daughter of the manse in rural Dumfriesshire. She became Head girl at Dumfries Academy where she won many academic and singing prizes, and was long jump champion. She went on to Edinburgh University to study languages, becoming fluent in both French and German.
There she continued to pursue her lifelong love of dancing, attending all the tea dances going and turning a few heads in the process. One of these was Peter (Dad), who was the love of her life, and later became her husband for almost 64 years. They first met on the Committee organising Charities Week and Dad used to describe how he found himself sitting next to this attractive, vivacious, and intelligent girl who had the je ne sais quoi that made her stand out from the others.
In 1945, after the end of WW2, Mum travelled on the first train to Prague as a delegate to an international student conference to examine how to re-build relationships within Europe. She saw many sad sights, including a death camp, along the way. Subsequently, after training at Bletchley Park, she worked in Hanover and Berlin as a Youth Officer with the British Control Commission. In 1949, after her return, she and Dad were married by her father in the church she grew up in.
For the next seven years or so they lived in London and Fort Augustus where Mum was a research assistant at the International Tea Market Expansion Board under Gervas Huxley, and a farmer’s wife respectively, except for a brief period in Caithness and Sutherland where she accompanied Dad on his 1951 general election campaign.
Whilst on the farm she learned to weave, drive a tractor, muck out and deliver piglets. She used to guffaw at the memory of her mother’s face when Dad turned up at the manse one day in his old RAF van with a pregnant pedigree sow in the front and Mum in the back. And he was an atheist too!
They sold the farm in 1956 and moved to Ballater where there has been a base ever since. It was mainly a second home until 1974 as we spent periods in Rhodesia, New York State, Boston USA and Sussex.
Mum’s lifelong interest in antiques and paintings first chrystalised into a business in 1964, when she opened The Snuff Box in Braemar. Subsequently, she successfully established Balmoral Antiques in the heart of Boston’s bustling antique land and regarded this as one of her biggest achievements. As she was leaving to return to the UK, she was chuffed when one hard-nosed American dealer speaking for the others said “Congratulations, you know you could have fallen flat on your face”. It was from that shop that she provided the iconic chess set, along with the fire dogs and other props, for the chess scene in the film ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. On returning to Sussex, she sold paintings from home and exhibited at fairs before opening the McEwan Gallery in Braemar, Aberdeenshire.
In 1975, the McEwan Gallery in its current guise opened with Mum at the helm and she literally put it on the map, as RAC road maps of the day attest. Branches were later opened in Aberdeen and Broadway, Worcs. During the subsequent 43 years, she also regularly took paintings to antique fairs, game fairs, hotels, and special events such as an annual three week winter exhibition in Toronto. At these she often found herself on the vetting committees. As well as trading in old paintings, mum was always enthusiastically promoting modern artists and sculptors. Her achievement in becoming a successful international art dealer, operating in what was largely a man’s world, can never be over-stated.
Mum radiated warmth and had a great sense of humour, often at her own expense. She was self-effacing, possessed an enduring empathy, and was always thinking of others before herself. In a drawer, she kept a number of notes. One of them was entitled ‘Things you can learn from a dog.’ She clearly learned at least two of those: ‘Be loyal – never pretend to be something you’re not’, and ‘When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close and nuzzle.’ She was a good and sympathetic listener.
She was a sensitive person who felt deeply, a good judge of character, and she had an uncanny ability to see through pretence. She had a strong core, surviving much physical hardship and illness over many years and, after her beloved husband died in 2013, she was steadfastly resilient in moving forward with dignity and purpose. She was very uncomplaining. She was also well able to point out, in a quiet but direct way, if she was unhappy with anything you did or had not done. Standards were there to keep up.
She was a risk-taker. It was a risk setting up each of her antique shops and picture galleries. It was a risk taking a young family to live in the Rhodesian bush in 1959 and it was a risk in 1984 buying an unsigned Gainsborough painting which most others in the art world said was wrong, but is now fully verified and hangs in Gainsborough’s House Museum, their most expensive purchase to date. In typical fashion, she said her greatest regrets were things she didn’t do rather than things she did.
Mum would never create a drama where none was necessary and appeared to carry out her work effortlessly. She was not one to over-complicate things. She excelled at almost anything she turned her hand to, although this sometimes went under the radar. She was an accomplished artist, particularly of African children, and one of her portraits resides in the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) National Gallery. Another was purchased by the Ghanaian Ambassador in London. Mum was also an accomplished violinist, playing in several community orchestras and quartets, and performing at the Edinburgh Festival. She had a great eye for, and appreciation of, beautiful things, particularly in nature and the Arts and her enthusiasm was infectious. She liked nothing better than helping people find paintings, ceramics, or sculptures they really liked, and it was this genuine love for what she was doing that so endeared her to people.
Whilst Rhod has been a partner in the Gallery for a long time, he has been running it solo for the past two years. Nevertheless, it will not surprise you to know that, until mid-December, Mum was also regularly trawling the auction catalogues on her iPad and keeping track of the busy auction schedule.
She used to say that the advice she would give to anyone starting in the trade would be “to pursue knowledge tirelessly, remain unequivocally honest, and master a specialty.” She herself did all those things, with the emphasis on honesty.
In her younger days Mum made an attempt at reaching the Olympic long jump qualifying distance and played alongside Dad in the Ballater tennis team. She was also an epee fencer at university. In later years, she greatly enjoyed her bridge evenings and family curling outings at New Year.
Mum exuded a natural elegance and poise. Her alternative career choice would have been as a dancer, and her dream object was a room full of Degas ballerina sculptures. Only a few months ago when we were sitting in a café, an unknown lady approached Mum to say how beautiful she looked, with such a wonderful complexion, a comment quickly deflected with her usual modesty.
Even though to the rest of us Mum retained an ethereal beauty, over the last two years she increasingly withdrew from public life as she didn’t wish to be remembered as what she described as a “crumbly”. However, if the hairdresser had visited, she might appear on the balcony occasionally to wave hello to a special friend or, more usually, to check that the gallery lights were on, the floor hoovered, and the paintings artistically hung. And, of course, when she sat elegantly at her desk during the annual exhibitions she defied her age and frailty.
Although a very private person, with a strong moral compass, Mum was extremely caring and was always trying to help others with their problems. She worried for the world and kept so up-to-date with a variety of topics that she could equally talk to Stuart, Leila and Andy about modern music trends as talk with Feona about the business world, or play with four year-old Archie on her Ipad.
Mum did have faults. Although she had angel’s wings, she also had human feet. She ate too much salt and chocolate, she told me when I needed to take off weight, and she never let anyone put a milk carton on the table. It had to be a jug. She liked an annual flutter on the Grand National and an occasional one on the National Lottery. But she didn’t have any enemies, which not many of us can say truthfully. As someone recently said “how could you not like her.”
She was part of a strong team with Dad and, as a good friend has written, “your parents were quite a pair – dynamic, interesting, knowledgeable and interested.”
They certainly both packed a lot into their lives and on one famous occasion they travelled to Scotland by sleeper train with 34 paintings dispersed under the beds, on the racks, in the luggage van and on one of the bunks. They had fun.
Mum was an absolute trooper. She was our lodestar that we followed and cherished. She was never a quitter and she instilled that ethos in her children and her grandchildren. She never fully appreciated her own value and always shunned the limelight. But she wanted the best for everyone and was always encouraging of this. She exuded kindliness, charm, integrity, intelligence and a genuine interest in people and things. She was very gracious and compassionate, and had a great smile. She was dependable, trustworthy and always fair. In the words of one of her admirers “she was one of the most lovely, well-balanced people one could ever meet.”
Mum was proud of us and we of her. She had soul. We loved her dearly and had so many great laughs. They are what we must remember most of all.
Thanks for everything Mum.