The Townhead district of Glasgow and the fishing village of Catterline, on the north-east coast of Scotland, provided the locations and communities which inspired much of Joan Eardley’s oeuvre, revealing her deep sense of place and people in works which have secured her a leading place in British art history.
As Fiona Pearson has explained:
Eardley was a strong, passionate painter who was totally engaged in depicting the life forces around her, everything from children to nature…Eardley’s deep love of humanity was manifest in images of the resilience of the human spirit among the poor, the old and the very young…[She reminds…] Scots of lost tenement communities and the wild natural beauty of the landscape. (Fiona Pearson, Joan Eardley, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2007, pp.8-9)
In 1953 Eardley moved into a studio at 204 St James Road in Townhead, above a scrap-metal merchant’s premises. The area was of mixed residential and light industrial use, was rundown and overcrowded, yet she was drawn to its vibrancy, declaring:
I like the friendliness of the back streets. 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. (As quoted in Patrick Elliott and Anne Galastro, Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2016, p.14).
Eardley became a familiar figure sketching and photographing in the streets, drawn to the games and squabbles of the neighbourhood’s children and to evidence of lives lived in and amongst its decaying architecture. She worked spontaneously, at speed and often on the modest scale afforded by pocket sketchbooks, using larger sheets, chalks and pastels when developing imagery on return to her studio.
Works such as Children Playing Marbles show how Eardley instinctively empathised with childhood emotions, as a group of youngsters are absorbed in the drama of a competitive game. In The Blue Pinafore a child is caught in moment of contemplation. Her facial expression is depicted with tenderness and her unselfconscious pose speaks of innocence, whilst the thick application of pastel – sometimes highly coloured – signifies form and the artist’s energetic technique.
As Eardley became known in Townhead, so her natural rapport with the local children developed and some came to her studio to sit for her. She recalled:
Most of them I get on with…some interest me much more as characters…they don’t need much encouragement: they don’t pose…they are completely uninhibited and they just behave as they would among themselves…They just let out all their life and energy they haven’t been able to at school. (As quoted in Elliott and Galastro, op.cit., p.48)
The studio works could be more considered, as seen in Studies of Amanda and Portrait Study. Boy with Blue Trousers shows the ease at which she put her sitters, a whirlwind of lines applied over colour fields to define his features, his gap-toothed smile revealing his age and good humour. As a son of Eardley’s dealer, Bill Macaulay of The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, Eardley will have known the boy well.
Two Children is a particularly resolved and successful work. Skilful layering and blending of multi-coloured pastels focus attention on the children’s faces, their overlapping pose suggesting the intimacy of siblings. Eardley’s gestural technique communicates the patterning of their clothing, which gives way to free form mark-making.
Ginger is a dignified yet tender portrait. Executed with oil on board, the boy looks directly at the artist (and by extension the viewer). As Christopher Andreae has written about such works:
They were portraits not caricatures. She had too much rapport with them for such distortion. And direct, daily experience of them actually meant she knew them well and painted them in their world…she [did not]…let sentimentalism sift sugar over her understanding of these kids. (Christopher Andreae, Joan Eardley, Farnham 2013, p. 127)
Eardley’s first visited Catterline in 1951 and the village became a new stimulus where she could depict the immensities of nature in the open air, painting and sketching ‘on the spot’ in all seasons, weather conditions and times of day.
As Patrick Elliott has explained
Catterline was not a picturesque Highland village…but a working harbour with boats, fishing nets and fields of wheat, barley and oats. People may be absent from Eardley’s Catterline paintings, but their presence is felt.’ (Patrick Elliott and Anne Galastro, Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, Edinburgh 2016, p.10)
Eardley made frequent painting trips to Catterline between 1952 and 1954, before renting the small cottage at No. 1 South Row. She thereafter split her time between Glasgow and the village. Whilst keeping No.1 as a store, Eardley went on to purchase No. 18 South Row in 1959. Her relationship with the immediate area deepened and in 1961 Eardley declared:
When I’m painting in the north-east I hardly ever move out of the village…I find that the more I know of the place, or of one particular spot, the more I find to paint…I don’t think I’m painting what I feel about scenery, certainly not scenery with a name; because that is the north-east, just vast wastes, vast seas, vast areas of cliff…well – you’ve just go to paint it.’ (As quoted in Elliott and Galastro, op.cit., p.11)
As revealed in Haystack and Gate, Eardley was finely attuned to the turn of the seasons, the farming calendar and varying lighting conditions. She captured the ripening of the crops, their harvesting and the fecund forms of the resultant stacks. Here one is positioned at the centre of a composition based on thickly painted passages in which the higgledy-piggledy gate and fence are picked out in rich detail.
Eardley gave Footsteps in the Snow, The Row, Catterline to her grandmother’s housekeeper, Mrs McLusky in 1963. Mrs McLusky later explained that it had been made at daybreak after a fresh fall of snow. The footprints are those of the artist leaving No.1 South Row and finding the place from which to paint the scene. The cottage was the last in a row of ten and has been described thus:
No.1 was…the most exposed and southerly cottage in the village, at the least favoured end of the least favoured row, half as desirable as a coal shed…while there were a few bits of furniture in it when Eardley moved it, it seems to have had no permanent recent resident. It suited Eardley perfectly. (Elliott and Galastro, ibid., p.39).
The low vantage point means the cottage nestles above swathes of snow and beneath a sky in which dawn is advancing. Touches of colour bring out features such as the window frames and areas of weathering on the gable end. The interior painted on the work’s reverse provides a glimpse into its interior, showing the artist’s kettle set upon a gas stove. On receiving the painting, Mrs McLusky pointed out that it was unsigned, whereupon Eardley wrote her name in pencil at the lower right.
The Sea No.5 is a bravura example of Eardley’s heroic efforts to express the movement and power of the sea at Catterline, albeit on an intimate scale. She turned to this subject in earnest after moving to No. 18 South Row, which had a spectacular view down to the bay and the ever-changing state of the North Sea.
Patrick Elliott has continued:
The worse the weather, the more Eardley wanted to paint on the beach…Her ear was attuned to the noise of the crashing waves: she could judge, from her bed, if it would be worth painting. If she was in Glasgow and heard reports of north-easterly gales brewing off the east coast, she would happily pack her bags and head north. (Elliott and Galastro, ibid., p.119)
Painted in 1963, not long before Eardley’s premature death, the elongated horizontal format of The Sea No. 5 mirrors the artist’s experience of the scene before her. Mere glimpses of the beach are visible as Eardley focussed on the sheer power of the natural phenomenon playing out in front of her easel. The highly-charged gestural and abstract technique was informed by European Tachiste painting and American Abstract Expressionism, placing Eardley at the cutting-edge of post-war British art.
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