Joan Eardley in Edinburgh

This week I made a special trip up to Edinburgh to see the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  I've loved Eardley's work ever since I saw her painting of 'Catterline in Winter' at an exhibition about 25 years ago.  It mesmerises me;  the snow, the tilted line of houses on the cliff top, the winter sun just glimpsed through grey cloud.  As a writer it suggests a backstory - people's lives, struggle, living with the elements.  There's nothing easy about this painting. It has a dramatic tension made visible by the gully that bisects the canvas and where, in reality, a tortuous path staggers down from the fishermen's cottages to the beach where their boats are pulled up and their nets are drying.

'Catterline in Winter'

So I welcomed the chance to see more of Joan Eardley's work and find out about her life.  I knew that she had died in 1963, from breast cancer, at the age of 42, just as she had been accepted into the Royal Scottish Academy and was regarded by everyone as one of the contemporary painters with the most potential.  And, in 1963, this was remarkable for a woman and a northerner.  Sexism was alive and well in the art world, which had its centre in London.

Joan Eardley painting at Catterline

Joan was born in 1921 on a dairy farm in the south of England to a mother used to quite a comfortable life and a father who had suffered in the First World War.  His mental collapse meant that the farm had to be sold in 1926 and Joan's mother and sister moved to Blackheath on the southern fringe of London, to live with their grandmother. Joan's father committed suicide in 1929.  Ten years later the women moved north to Scotland, where they had relatives, to avoid the London bombings. They settled on the outskirts of Glasgow, where Joan attended the School of Art.  She had a studio in the Townhead area of the city, fascinated by the tenements and the people who lived there. 'I like the friendliness of the backstreets.  Life is at its most uninhibited here.  Dilapidation is often more interesting to a painter as is anything that has been used and lived with - whether it be an ivy covered cottage, a broken farm-cart or an old tenement'. 

Joan's studio - which was freezing cold in winter

In 1950, Joan Eardley had an exhibition in Aberdeen and it was while staying up there that she discovered the village of Catterline, on the east coast, further south towards Dundee.  The area made a big impression on Joan.  'It is really very lovely country, I have quite fallen for it, both the sea and the country behind . . .  where there are lovely moors, and new forests and rushing burns, quite different from the west, more rolling and lovely reddish earth.'   Catterline was a fishing village in post-war decline. The cottages were primitive, two rooms, no sanitation, and only a fireplace for cooking and heating.  But Joan loved it, describing it in a letter to a friend.   'Catterline has such a terrific clarity and terrific light, whereas Glasgow feels as though it has a sort of lid on the top of it.' But it was also very similar to Glasgow in that it was a small community, ' ... a little backstreet, where everybody knows everybody else.  . . It's the sort of intimate thing I like, and I think you've got to know something before you paint it.'   From then on she divided her time between Catterline and Glasgow, renting one of the cottages as a studio and later on buying another to live in.  It offered her, she said, 'vast wastes, vast seas, vast areas of cliff'.

Flood Tide at Catterline

Joan Eardley's comment that you 'have to know something' before you can paint it was a statement of her method.  She observed even the small details, explaining in an Arts Council interview:  'When I'm painting . . . I hardly ever move out of the village, I hardly ever move from one spot;  I find that the more I know of the place, or of one particular spot, the more I find to paint in that particular spot.'   Among my favourite paintings are her landscapes, particularly the fields, where seed heads and flowers are pressed onto the canvas and sculpted there with paint, creating a fantastic texture.  the detail in the different layers of colour is incredible.

In Glasgow her focus was not on the landscape, but on the people, particularly children.  Her portraits of the street children are never sentimental - in fact I found them rather scary.

Glasgow Children

They grimace;  they have dark eyes.  These are children who know things.  Children who have dangerous lives.

Three children at a tenement window
This is a fabulous exhibition - 5 rooms packed with paintings as well as cases of letters and notebooks and sketchbooks and press cuttings detailing the painter's life.  I would love to go again. Towards the end of her life her work was veering much more towards abstraction, revealing her fascination with colour.  It is tragic that her life was cut short at the age of 42.

'Summer Sea', one of the last paintings from Catterline, 1962

Joan Eardley:  A Sense of Place, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. 


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