As an audience we find ourselves increasingly intrigued by Eardley as the years pass. Perhaps this is because the passage of time has done little to dim the eloquent ‘truthfulness’ of her work, or the fact we now understand fully how we have been robbed of a significant talent by her untimely early death. What could this extraordinary artist have gone on to achieve with more time?
It is also, perhaps, because through her work we can see tangible glimpses of the singular woman herself. What we know of this artist’s personality from the accounts of her small but close circle of friends is transcribed vividly in paint and charcoal. There is a raw passion to her work, as well as a brusque but acute sensitivity and pathos towards her fellow humans; a determination in the marks she made, and a single-mindedness evident in the subjects that drew her intense focus.
With works representing each of the key areas of her oeuvre, the selection that was offered in our 10 June 2021 auction helps to tell the story of this extraordinary woman’s life.
Eardley was devoted to Glasgow, particularly to the fast-disappearing areas to the east which were being torn down and re-developed. She recognised that the sense of community which had thrived within the tenement closes and backcourts was vanishing along with the old buildings and subsequently dedicated herself to capturing what remained in her artworks. Nothing represented this essence for Eardley more than the local children:
“…they are Glasgow – this richness Glasgow has – I hope it will always have – a living thing, an intense quality – you can never know what you are going to do but as long as Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint.”
Eardley had an attic studio at 21 Cochrane Street, now long since demolished. It was extremely basic, consisting only of a large free-standing stove, a cooker, a workbench and sink. It did, however, have a glazed ceiling and outer wall making it perfect for painting. It was here that the majority of her famous depictions of the local street children were painted. She had her favourites amongst them – those that would come knocking on her door asking to be painted – and they recur as recognisable characters in her drawings.
Catterline, a tiny row of fishermen’s cottages hunkered on the wild North East Scottish coast, became the foil to the scenes of urban decay and scrambling clusters of children playing in the streets. Here her work found an expanse of elemental scenery and wild, wind-lashed textures to tempt her brush. Again favouring almost spartan living conditions; the simplest of furniture, the light of old oil lamps, Eardley would spend weeks at a time alone here, trudging doggedly out into the elements to paint en plein air.
The work produced here is often tumultuous; the artist revelling in the battle to distil the landscape’s essence even as it tries its best to evade her. Crashing waves, tangled grasses and heaving skies characterise these works which again capture the duality that is at the root of her work: her ferocious skill married with an un-replicable sensitivity to her environment.
By 1961, Joan Eardley's ill health was keeping her indoors in her Catterline cottage for periods and she wasn't always able to paint en plein air in the elements. Consequently, only a very small clutch of still lifes exist, dating exclusively to this short time period between 1961 and her death at the age of 42 in 1963.
Though Eardley resented her periods of confinement, these oils nonetheless burst with all the wild texture and vitality of her landscapes of the surrounding cornfields and meadows. Taking a traditionally feminine genre of painting, Eardley individualised her approach to the subject and the result is both striking and beautiful. The layers of scumbled paint and the myriad ways in which she applies it are a visual feast for the eyes, not to mention a demonstration of her distinctive prowess as a painter.
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