Joan Eardley is recognised as one of the great talents of 20th century Scottish art, capturing the essence of some distinctly Scottish people and places; from the energy and community of a quickly disappearing urban way of life in the east end of Glasgow, to the drama and brutality of varying weather effects on the small fishing village of Catterline on the North-East coast.
In two scenes offered in our recent Scottish Paintings auction on 07 June 2018, Eardley turns her original eye and hand to the streets of Paris and her home of Glasgow, though in a rare turn, this time she focusses on the structures her subjects inhabited rather than the subjects themselves.
In Glasgow Tenement with Grafitti, it is a delight to see Eardley working in oil to capture the vivid texture and palette of a Glasgow tenement. She has cropped the scene so specifically, and worked so loosely, that it takes the viewer a moment to adapt and recognise what they are seeing. As the subject comes into focus, we are drawn to the details – the strikingly graphic graffiti, the little heads peeking through the window, the cat curled up on the steps – that reveal the community and life inhabiting this dilapidated building. It is a strikingly accomplished artwork, and a visually powerful image, yet it also works as an historical record of a community way of life that Eardley knew, even as she was painting, was coming to an end.
In Houses, Paris, Eardley takes a more typical viewpoint, depicting the structure of Parisian apartments, revealing their distinctive character, and intriguing the viewer as to what lives and dramas may be occurring inside. The work unfolds across two pieces of paper that the artist has joined – a typical action of Eardley, and an adaptation that only adds to the appeal for her collectors. She was a committed artist, who took her work very seriously, yet she rarely became precious about the condition or approach of individual pieces, happy to add extra expanses of paper when required, or work loosely on the rough texture of sandpaper, to stuff sketches in drawers where they gained additional tears and textures. When working in Catterline, she would even go so far as to leave her large oil works outside, subject to exposure to the elements, feeling this experience improved rather than ruined her art. Houses, Paris is mostly worked in shades of brown and grey, exactly as we would expect, yet Eardley is able to lift and energise the composition with flashes of bright blue and green.
In all these works, an order and vision arise out of an image that at first glance may seem or feel to be messy or chaotic. In essence, this is Eardley’s distinct skill in art; she was always led by her dynamic, chaotic subjects – the innocence of the street children of Townhead, the awe-inspiring drama of the Catterline coast, and her techniques were guided by them. These were difficult, ever-changing subjects but somehow she managed to engage with them, experience them and capture an essence of them for us; revealing with care both the order and the chaos, the beauty and the mess, artistry and reality.