Joan Eardley 50th Anniversary Exhibition

May 2013

Publication: The Times

Joan Eardley, who was born in Warnham, Sussex in 1921 to a Scottish mother, Irene Morrison, is clearly an artist of great stature. Eardley trained at Blackheath School of Art and Goldsmith’s College, before moving to Scotland and enrolling at Glasgow School of Art. She completed her studies, after the war, at the highly regarded Hospitalfield House, Arbroath.  


Over the years since her premature death, in 1963, debate about the Scottishness, or otherwise, of her work has sometimes been heated. Now, fifty years after Eardley’s death, this show of Eardley’s drawings ¾one of several this year ¾ serves as an reminder, if any were needed, of her remarkable talents.


It coincides with a new publication by the art historian, Christopher Andreae, which adds to existing major studies of Eardley by Cordelia Oliver and Fiona Pearson. Pearson’s second study of the painter was published in 2007, at the same time as the major Eardley retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.


Recent publicity has hinged on the nature of Eardley’s relationship with Audrey Walker ¾ a friend and collector of the artist’s work.  Andreae’s book includes a series of previously unpublished letters from Eardley to Walker, as well as a brief tribute by Walker. These documents make clear the strong emotional bond between the two women. It is this aspect of Andreae’s study which primarily distinguishes it from previous ones and makes it a more compelling read, if not a more comprehensive critical take.


Walker compares  the two primary facets of Eardley’s character (as she saw them) to the summer and the winter sea. Discussing the latter, Walker writes: “…perhaps only three people knew this Joan really well. Two of them could not take it (just as most folk keep away from the sea in really wild weather ¾even the fishermen do) but to me she was, quite simply, the winter sea to which and for which I would give my life.”


Writing to Walker in July 1956 (four years after they has met) Eardley says:  “Dear dear you I love you so much. It is often almost too painful to be away from you so long. ¾but it must be ¾I know that. And so long as you are better then it can be ¾because I am terribly much stronger now in health. But if you are not better then it must not be. Oh love ¾My love always, Joan”


Although such communication is innocent by today’s standards, the two women clearly felt that the nature of their relationship should remain a private matter. And while Eardley’s letters and Walker’s tribute are interesting on a human level, the real question is how they add to our knowledge and understanding of Eardley’s art.


Andreae’s book illustrates nine of the Lillie Gallery’s forty-four drawings, many of which have been loaned by Pat Black, Eardley’s sister. Some are part of the Lillie’s permanent collection.


Eardley was highly adept across the media she employed and while there is a directness in her oils, these drawings demonstrate an immediacy ­­­­¾largely a product of the speed of their execution ¾which painting cannot match.


Eardley painted the 'wild' children of the now, largely demolished, Townhead in Glasgow, where a vivid street culture and cohesive community thrived. Her work here captures the children, particularly those of the Samson family.


One such work is ‘Two Children’ and despite its unlikely medium (pastel on sandpaper) the work is convincing as portraiture. One can almost feel the power of Eardley’s hand moving rapidly and assuredly over the rough surface, daubing and smudging the ochre and black pastel around the figures to provide background and definition.


Andreae observes that such studies “….were portraits, not caricatures. She had too much rapport with them [the children] for such distortion…”


Certainly, there is an intimacy which matches the work’s immediacy here and in others such as the chalk and pastel drawings ‘Study of Seated Child with Cup’  and ‘Sketch of a Child Peering Forward’.


Eardley’s talent extended to other subjects. An earlier work, from 1949, ‘Seated Figure,’ shows an already mature talent as a seated, sleeping, female nude is rendered effectively, and with great economy.


In 1954, Eardley moved to the fishing community of Catterline, perched high on the cliff-tops overlooking the North Sea. Here she painted the sea in all its moods, but most often in storm, wind and rain. She painted 'en plein air,' sometimes allowing sand, grass and other ‘found’ elements to be blown into her painting, where they remained.


A wonderful example of this is the large oil, ‘Flood Tide,’ painted in Catterline in 1962. Andreae links this, and other seascapes, to works such as ‘Sweet Shop, Rotten Row’ (1960) as well as to Eardley’s fascination with “…the colours of the ancient walls in Venice in 1949”.


Gradually, Eardley’s work progressed from the dark ‘slub’ colours (browns, greys and greens) of the Glasgow school, to a more expressive and vibrantly colourful palette.  The paint itself was often sculpted in thick smears with a loaded brush or knife.


Although Eardley was a skilled draughtswoman her talents ran much deeper than mere representation: she had the skill to capture the moods of nature, as well as the moods of her human sitters. She was able to capture the raw power and energy of the sea, as well as the picturesque and the beautiful.