Renowned for creative experimentation, Joan Eardley was in her prime with a major exhibition planned for New York, when her tragic, untimely death aged 42, deprived her of achieving international acclaim. Eardley’s artistry covered two contrasting themes: street kids and stormy skies – from the characterful sketches of Glasgow children to the wild seascapes at Catterline on the Kincardineshire coast. The Scottish Gallery has represented Eardley from her early career, quickly recognising her genius and presented her work at their Festival Exhibition, 1955. As part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2021, this mini-retrospective at the Scottish Gallery commemorates the centenary of Eardley’s birth. This well curated, inspiring collection of paintings and sketches from 1948 to 1963, (many for sale and others on loan) is complemented with an archival display of photographs, press articles and catalogues.
After studying at Glasgow School of Art, her first studio was on Cochrane Street, Townhead where she began to photograph and draw the local waifs playing outside. Moving nearby to St. James Street, she was fascinated by the close-knit, impoverished community and became friends with the Samson children who were happy to pose for portraits in her studio.
The Boy in a Red Jumper has a quizzical expression, almost a grimace with his flushed cheeks, open mouth, (perhaps suffering a bad cold), a black smear on his chin and jumper. Joan continually experimented with technique making numerous quick sketches before the kids were bored and ran off. She was a social observer like a photojournalist, wanting to capture their oversized, hand-me-down clothes, dirty faces and happy-go-lucky cheeky grins.
A wee girl with a mop of red hair and squint in her eye seems to take her portrait-sitting seriously in One of the Samsons as does her sister in a sketch of her in a colourfully striped cardigan. ‘I just watch them in painterly terms, all the bits of colour .. they wear each other’s clothes. They are Glasgow. This richness I hope it will always have, a living thing. You can’t stop observing.’ Joan Eardley
Eardley avoided caricature and sentimentality to illustrate the raw, everyday truthfulness of Townhead life. With a backdrop of a graffiti chalked wall, Girl with Poke of Chips is a collage of oil paint and scraps of newspaper for a realistic poke.
Here too are numerous sketches and paintings of her neighbourhood streets, soot- blackened tenement flats and corner shops, such as Tenement in the Snow – you can feel the icy chill.
From the early fifties, Eardley frequently visited the clifftop village of Catterline where she first rented then later bought a cottage. Here, she enjoyed a peaceful escape from the city to embrace the rugged rural beauty through the seasons in her work.
Seascape (1961) is a semi-abstract composition of rolling waves and rain clouds, the brash brushstrokes creating a sweeping, swirling mass of grey, blue, black with watery splashes of white and yellow surf. Eardley immersed herself physically in the seascape, standing with her easel on the shore to experience the power of a winter storm: the focus is on the emotional feeling as much as a visual portrayal of the scene.
She was mesmerised by the constant change of weather as she would describe in journals and letters: ‘Today is rough and windy and a smirr of rain. I wish I could [paint] the sea when it is like this, grey and white… black sea, bright green striped sea, brown sea, yellow sea and no sea. Extraordinary strong cloud formations, too.’ – Joan Eardley.
The challenge was to capture the dramatic mood of the elements with atmospheric clarity as in Grey Beach and Sky. The perspective draws the viewer close up beside the crashing waves on the shore, amidst a dreich, darkness with an impressionistic smudge of murky colours.
Experimenting with a more abstract technique, Storm over the Sea is a delicate pastel sketch which brilliantly depicts sea, sky, rain in geometric blocks and gestural streaks of bold colour. While simple and minimalist in form, there’s such a sense of energy in this wild weather.
In the Spring and Summer, Eardley took her easel to the meadows and cornfields, where she would stand for hours surrounded by the scent of wildflowers. Using the medium of gouache, an opaque watercolour, there’s extraordinary detail of the green grasses and flourishing grain in Ripening Barley. She would often sprinkle cornstalks and seeds into collage landscapes for texture and authenticity.
A very special commission for this centenary tribute is a newly-crafted tapestry interpreting Eardley’s painting July Fields in collaboration with Dovecot Studios. July Fields, (1959) is a glorious, chaotic, colourful explosion of verdant green grasses, a splatter of white daisies and bright blue petals; the eye is drawn to the shimmer of azur sea below a blue-green patterned sky, dotted with golden streaks of sunlight.
Naomi Robertson, Master Weaver at Dovecot Studios, had the task of interpreting this painting anew as a woven tapestry using a high-warp loom. ‘I thought [July Fields] would be suited to tapestry; the gestural paint marks, the layering of colour over colour with its multiple brush marks, spatters of paint and translating it to tapestry. A blend of 6-8 strands of wool together create different shades, a mixture of wool, cottons and linen to achieve a depth of colour and layering. The tapestry took seven months to complete.’
In the centre salon at the Scottish Gallery, two walls have been painted a warm cobalt blue in order to present the July Fields tapestry against a co-ordinated background. To appreciate the panoramic scene, stand back to study its richly textured flowers, field, fence, sea and sky, glowing with light. The signature, Joan Eardley, is woven at the bottom right corner: a magnificent, modern re-imagination of her summer landscape.
This centenary year has been a time to reflect on Eardley’s unique pioneering vision: her portraits have been critically compared to Goya and Soutine, and her bold impressionistic style ranked alongside Turner, Auerbach and de Kooning. Her legacy endures as a most influential artist, inspiring each generation afresh since her death in 1963. Joan Eardley’s original artistic style is as contemporary today as always, to depict the world around her with such passion, energy and a personal, expressive voice.
A beautifully-illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition is available at the Gallery.
With thanks to our contributor Vivien Devlin for this review.