Published  08/01/2008

Joan Eardley

Joan Eardley

Joan Eardley's life was cut tragically short by cancer in 1963 at the age of 42. Born in England she spent her life in Scotland, after studying at the Glasgow School of Art. Two subjects dominate the retrospective exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh this winter – paintings of children from Glasgow's tenement blocks and the land and sea around Catterline, a village south of Aberdeen on Scotland's east coast.

National Gallery Complex, The Mound, Edinburgh
6 November 2007 – 13 January 2008


Douglas Hall, Keeper of the National Galleries of Scotland described Eardley in 1969 as being a painter of world class. Although he championed her work, she was not widely considered a major 20th century artist in her lifetime. Indeed when her biographer Cordelia Oliver suggested a retrospective in 1988 to mark the 25th anniversary of her death, the National Galleries turned her down. Tim Clifford who was then the Director appeared to be somewhat dismissive. Fiona Pearson has now curated the Eardley exhibition that should have been staged then. She has drawn material from the family archive and persuaded private collectors to lend works. There are 60 oils and 35 watercolours, as well as drawings and photographs. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition. As the catalogue went to print further offers of works came in, however, Pearson is happy that the show is as definitive as it could be. There is no film of Eardley in existence, but there is an eight-minute tape recording of her talking about the children she painted. Firm supporters of Eardley's work have not needed to be convinced of her importance, as the market has revealed. Recently, the Scottish Gallery sold an Eardley for £85,000, which would have reached perhaps £15,000 a few years ago. Guy Peploe, Managing Director of the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh states:

There was a desperate urgency to her work. It was almost as if she knew that she was not going to be the grand lady of Scottish art. Today, her work is enormously sought after. Her distinctive areas of subject matter - Glasgow and Catterline – each have their adherents. Her prices have tripled in the last three years. I think the National Galleries of Scotland show will be enormously popular – and a revelation to some people. She is important in English collections, but compared to the less interesting English artists; she is underrated. She is one of very few Scottish artists you can make a genuine case for a major international figure.1

Fiona Pearson says Eardley was a great artist, 'one of the most important Scottish artists of the 20th century, and certainly the best loved. She sums up Scottishness, with her tenement children and north-eastern landscapes. She is town and country; these are lost communities. I hope people relate to them because they are all about life. Eardley loved humanity'.2

Joan Eardley's short life was intensely lived. Born in Sussex, in 1921, her English father committed suicide when she was seven. Eardley's Scottish mother took her two daughters to live with her own mother in London. An aunt paid for the girls to attend private school where Joan's talent was recognised. It is not known what effect the loss of her father had on the young artist other than she was brought up in a predominantly female environment consisting of a younger sister, mother, aunt, occasional great-aunts and a grandmother. With encouragement from her teachers she applied for the Glasgow School of Art.

At the very beginning of the Second World War in 1939, Eardley moved to Scotland with her family to live with her mother's family in Bearsden where they were safely out of London during the Blitz. In Glasgow she studied drawing and painting. She flourished and her talent was recognised even though the school suffered the privations of war, with staff and material shortages, and the student population being halved. After graduating in 1943 she did a teacher training course but did not ever enjoy classroom teaching. Instead she chose the hands-on experience of working with a joiner, and returned briefly to London. At the end of the war, her tutor secured a travelling scholarship – something of a rarity at the time, which took her to southern Europe, particularly Italy. 'An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings of Italy made by a Travelling Scholar at the School, Joan Eardley' was held on her return in October 1949. She exhibited a powerful body of work, which was acknowledged at the time. Among the works were strong images of hard-working people – of peasants, beggars, old women sewing or seated in church. The art critic of The Glasgow Herald recognised Eardley's talent and commitment.

Drawing underpins all of Eardley's work and she expressed her love of it in a letter to a friend:

I hope you are still happily drawing. It is a most satisfying joyful thing. The contact which you get because you are still, and quiet in one place; the things that move, and carry on their daily happenings because they are unconscious of your existence – little mice and bird, and even the sun and wind too become part of you.

And then there is the drawing, and the happiness of the occupied mind. Painting is different – at least I mean studio painting – the joy of work is there of course, but it is balanced by the other more desperate times of depression, and doubt and desolation.3

Eardley's drawing captures the subtle movement of her hand as she expresses utmost compassion for her sitters, many of whom are isolated by poverty and physical or social setbacks. William Buchanan identifies with her drawing, which had been compared to van Gogh's intense graphic work, 'The miracle of changing the particular into the universal has been wrought. Joan Eardley's drawings of people are drawings of understanding, tenderness and sympathy'.4 They can be compared to the superb graphic work of Käthe Kollwitz in Germany and Social Realist Noel Counihan in Australia, both of whom produced remarkable works of human warmth and dignity from the horror of war and the impact of exploitation of women and working people as a consequence of the upheavals in the first part of the 20th century.

Eardley also drew the shipyards in Port Glasgow. 'Here was a subject to delight Joan Eardley's heart and to give her joy in conquering the problems presented by the gigantic cranes rising above the rooftops.’5 Eardley made countless drawings of Port Glasgow, a more masculine subject than the sensitive portrayals of children. In her choice of both she showed considerable independence. Pastel was of particular value to her drawing process in which she used all techniques: pen and ink, brush and chalk. Pastel combined the drawn process with the subtlety and power of pure pigment, particularly suitable for capturing fidgety children. She used a fine-toothed paper, which gave an exciting tension and expressive quality to each carefully applied stroke. Her works in pastel of children naturally draw some comparison to the work of Mary Cassat and of her contemporary Berthe Morisot. Where Cassat and Morisot sought the fleeting moment in babies and young children, inevitably their work was bourgeois compared to the immediacy of Eardley's images, with social awareness and political implication. There is an animal energy and candour in Eardley's children in pastel that could only be achieved after many years of drawing.

Throughout her life she drew. She drew as an end in itself. She drew as a means of gaining knowledge to enable her to paint directly and with assurance. Her later pictures of wind, sea, sky and grass, amorphous and non-linear, painted with a fully charged brush, could not have been created without the skill gained from her drawing.6

By the time she returned to Glasgow in 1949 she was ready to apply her training, her experience and her passion for art to the business of painting. She embarked on a most productive and brilliant career, cut tragically short by death from breast cancer in 1963. Pearson observes:

Eardley was a social realist. She was devoted to reality. Everyone thinks of her as an emotive artist, but there was a lot of intellect there as well. She was a thinking person as well as a feeling person. We know that she was reading Ezra Pound, Kant and Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. It was not just splashy abstract stuff.7

Murdo Macdonald in Scottish Art has recognised Eardley in a broader context as contributing to a new vision of Scotland, both in her images of Glasgow children and her paintings of the Kincardineshire coast.

Her images of Glasgow tenements and children in the streets are of note not least with respect to a sensitivity – to graffiti and posters which resonates with the contemporary concerns of Pop Art. In her work at the Kincardineshire village of Catterline, to which she moved in 1956, she committed herself to understanding the sea more than any other painter since McTaggart in the 1890s. Rather than just responding to the attraction of the coastline, she painted with the perception of a mariner aware that waves are heavy, fast moving lumps of water, as able to kill as to support. In this she reinvigorated a maritime trend in Scottish art, which found continuing expression through, among others, John Bellany, Fred Stiven (1929-1997), Robert Callender (b. 1932), Elizabeth Ogilvie (b.1946), Ian Hamilton Finlay (b.1925), Joyce Cairns (b.1947), George Wyllie (b.1921), Frances Walker (b.1930), Will Maclean (b.1941) and Ian Stephen (b.1955).8

Joan Eardley was able to identify with the underprivileged children of Glasgow. She and her friend, Audrey Walker also photographed them, and they provide valuable documentation of post-war Britain. Where the photographs give the sombre quality of black and white, Eardley's paintings are by contrast strong in their palette. Bright patches of clothing are juxtaposed against the dark walls that form a backdrop of intense gloom, an analogy for the innocence of the child within an often threatening and corrupt world. She described her relation to her child models in an interview recorded towards the end of her life. The Samson family, of twelve children were her regular sitters.

I have been painting them for seven years ... there are a large number of them, 12, so I've always had a certain number of children from this family of any age I choose ... some children I don't like ... some interest me more as characters ... these ones I encourage ... they don't need much ... they don't pose – they come up and say will you paint me?

A pivotal work from this period was 'Children: Port Glasgow' (1955). The result of observation, drawing, the very stuff of life in the late 1940s, 'Children: Port Glasgow' focuses on the inner drama, or 'story', which Eardley considered was most important. Just as she had drawn peasants in Assisi, Eardley's observation of aspects of the relations within families and society are seamlessly incorporated as part of an overall narrative of the period. Where the boys in the composition are slightly set apart, given more independence, the girls are put in charge of caring for the younger children. The divide is natural and real, but it has a message nonetheless. Soon after her death, Martin Baillie wrote about this work and compared it to Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua.

'The dramatic-narrative style with its careful observation of individual reaction to the situation; the figures set in a series of verticals unexpectedly broken by a diagonal at a point of dramatic interest; the out-of-scale tenement symbolising a town; the limited depth of space – this is Giotto in modern dress.'9

Cordelia Oliver observes, 'for her a truly successful painting had to go deeper than a mere visual record, no matter how accurate. As with other paintings ... certainly in the best studies of the Samson family in Townhead, her success lay in her ability to combine the acute, uncompromising painter's eye with a warm human sympathy and understanding'.10

The Glasgow Herald's London reviewer responded to a number of pictures done by Eardley entitled, 'The Glasgow Boy', (c.1955). 'Her portraits of children – of which there are several examples in the present show – small solemn urchins who gaze upon the world with round eyes and open mouths, are at once lively and still. These heads are truly remarkable. In what is probably the most difficult branch of portraiture it is uncommon to find a combination of skill, acute observation and sympathetic truth.'11

Eardley spent the summer of 1951 with her friend, fellow artist Dorothy Steel, in France near Toulouse, where she did many pastels and drawings. She conceded there, that as much as she loved country life, her work lay in 'the slummy parts'. She worked hard during the days in Glasgow and enjoyed the theatre and concerts in the evenings. After painting, according to her biographer Cordelia Oliver, music was her great love: 'She enjoyed Bach, Bartok, Beethoven, Mozart, Monteverdi, Mahler (whose most anguished compositions must have echoed Joan's own struggle to express the inexpressible in paint) and Benjamin Britten, for whose music Joan had a special affection'.12

In 1952 Eardley's first paintings of Catterline were created in her Glasgow studio, and exhibited and sold in London in 1955. She also formed a most important friendship, with Audrey Walker who was a violinist and photographer. It was her photographs that record Eardley at work at Catterline where she produced the second body of work in her career. Eardley discovered the coastal village of Catterline in 1950, several miles south of Stonehaven. Early in the 20th century Catterline had been a busy fishing port supporting some hundred fishermen. In Joan Eardley's time there in the early 1950s the trade had practically disappeared. Only four boats fished for salmon. On her next visit there she found a cottage that was available for £40, which was beyond her means. Her friend Annette Stephen bought it for her to use.

By 1954 she had bought another cottage that suited her better. She used it increasingly until the end of her life. The basic quality of the building did not deter her from making it home. In 1954 she wrote with pride of the strangeness which she found exciting, and which inspired her to work prolifically there. From 1955 Eardley exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy the Society of Scottish Artists and in group exhibitions. In 1959 she had a one-woman show at 57 Gallery in George Street, Edinburgh. When she died, however, it became apparent just how productive she had been, and that many of her works were never made with the view of exhibiting in mind. The privacy that surrounded much of her work emphasises her integrity and high-mindedness.

Catterline gave Eardley the isolation that she required to work intensely for a show. There she wrote, 'Another day of sea – what a sea yesterday, and it's the same today and looks like going on for ever – not abating at all, and an east wind still blowing hard. Yesterday I was near dead by the end of the day – working at top speed. Today I shall take it easier as I realise it will continue'.13

In December 1957 she wrote of a storm:

What a night and what a morning – storm raging like anything – paintings and photos all out of date. The sea is all whiteness, right far out over the bay, and the bay all thick yellow foam – the tide is out at the moment, so the waves are breaking enormously – far out. When it comes in I guess there won't be much room for any poor person that would want to stand in the pathway – and I don't know if I shall be able to keep my easel standing.14

Her friend Annette Stephen remembers her painting in the most appalling conditions 'pouring her paint on with tremendous freedom and power'.15 She created in painting turbulent seas, menacing waves, the very drama of life at sea, the sinister undertow as the waves recede. She lived at Catterline until 1959 in spite of having no electricity, no running water or sanitation. When this became too arduous she moved her living quarters to another cottage, and kept the former as a studio alone.

Oliver describes her late landscapes as an urgent need to find expression 'for a heightened response to the experience of all of her senses – the angry roar and tumult of the sea, the silence of the snow-bound village, the sussuration of the wind across the barley field, the scent of the wild flowers and the hum of the bees; all these are implicit in her paintings'.16 The drama of nature also informed her late Glasgow works which incorporate a fresh and free use of collage, metal paper, sweet wrappings and graffiti. In 'Children and Chalked Wall, No.2' (c.1962) the children are placed left of centre, so that the wonderful patterning of bold, coloured lines in chalk can be viewed fully. The division of the picture plane is more radical and freer giving a sense of energy and rhythm to the work.

These late works are a bold assertion of life, an affirmation of two disparate aspects of life in Scotland. Where many would shrink from the blast of the North Sea or the street urchins from the poorest parts of Glasgow, Eardley found affection and respect. A month before Eardley's death in 1963, Eric Newton of The Guardian wrote of her last London exhibition, 'Only in an occasional Goya do I remember the translation of small children into paint mixed so inseparably with warm hearted self-identification with the inner life of a child. And only with Turner's sea paintings does one find oneself so involved with the skies and winds that hang over the uneasy tumult of the waves.'17 Eardley was working at the height of her powers; her untimely death meant that she was never given the stature she deserved. Her work deserves to be compared to Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Lucien Freud. Another twenty years working as intensely as she always had would have produced the recognition that her contemporaries have enjoyed.

In Catterline, Eardley lived under extreme conditions. Winters there reduced her cottage to an igloo. There were no deliveries of post or milk – in fact to leave the house at all required a strength that became too much. She fought illness and expressed her intimations of mortality in still-life works and further images of the sea – the great infinite, unknown space before her in nature. Her letters described her 'curtailed existence ... outside, the sea is still beating and tearing at the rocks – uselessly, because there is no painter person standing at the easel'.18

Joan Eardley had breast cancer for which she did not accept treatment. It spread to the brain causing unbearable headaches. She was forced to bed where she was looked after by a number of her very devoted friends. In due course she was moved to hospital in Aberdeen and then for terminal treatment to Killearn Hospital in order to be near to her mother and sister. After her death, her ashes were scattered on Catterline beach, which as Cordelia Oliver, her devoted friend and biographer wrote, 'a symbolic gesture, surely, of returning her to the place, the land and the waters both, to which she had so long been so welded, in spirit'.19

1. Guy Peploe. Critique. In: Brush with greatness, The Scotsman.
2. The Sunday Times, Culture, 4 November 2007: 17.
3. William Buchanan. Joan Eardley. In: Modern Scottish Painters, Number Five. Edinburgh: University Press, p 15.
4. Ibid: 19.
5. Ibid: 19.
6. Ibid: 21.
7. The Sunday Times, op cit: 17.
8. Murdo Macdonald. Scottish Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000:192–3.
9. Cordelia Oliver. Joan Eardley, RSA. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1988: 43.
10. Ibid: 48.
11. Ibid: 52.
12. Ibid: 46.
13. Ibid: 73.
14. Ibid: 73.
15. Ibid: 73.
16. Ibid: 77.
17. Press Statement.
18. Oliver, op cit: 89.
19. Ibid: 93.

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