Publication: The Times
Visual Art: GILES SUTHERLAND
Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place
STAR RATING: ***** (FIVE)
JOAN Eardley, who died in 1963, at the tragically young age of forty-two, has become recognised as one of the pre-eminent British artists of the 20th Century. Born in the typically picturesque village of Warnham, West Sussex, she moved, with her mother and sister, to London, following her father’s suicide. Eardley received some formal training at Blackheath School and then Goldsmith’s college, London.
In 1939 the family moved again, this time to Bearsden, Glasgow, where they lived with her mother’s relatives. The following year, Eardley enrolled at Glasgow School of Art, where she came under the tutelage of Hugh Adam Crawford, and also met her life-long friend Margot Sandeman. Eardley graduated from Glasgow in 1943, and worked as a teacher, and later, as a joiner. She enrolled at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, in 1949, to undertake further studies, principally with the artist, James Cowie.
This show, expansively and thoughtfully laid out, over a series of five galleries, shows the powerful and passionate output of an artist whose career lasted barely fifteen years. Within that short time, Eardley managed to pack in more than most artists do in a lifetime.
Archival material such as letters, newspaper cuttings and photography (some by Eardley herself), adds immensely to an understanding of Eardley’s subject matter, especially in respect of the work she made in Townhead, Glasgow, where she had a studio.
The photographs show the poverty and squalor of people’s lives there, while Eardley’s artwork combines this perspective with a humane and compassionate outlook. While Eardley managed to combine disintegrating housing, graffiti and poorly clothed, unwashed children into aesthetic statements, she did so with a social conscience, and with great empathy. Eardley too, lived a life of, sometimes, great privation, often relying on the kindness of friends for support.
Eardley divided her time between the inner city and the wildness of the Scottish north east coast. While convalescing from illness she was taken to the small fishing village of Catterline near Aberdeen, where her friend Annette Stephen later bought her a cottage. Later, Eardley purchased another property there and she maintained a presence in the village until her death, painting, en plein air, the fields, houses, skies, boats and harbour (often in stormy or cold weather with an individualism that is hard to match. Her treatment of the sea, not as a distant blue abstraction, but as a cold, green-grey and dangerous force, established Eardley as a major painter in this genre, in line with the work of J.M.W. Turner and William McTaggart.
There was something earthy, tough and fundamental about Eardley’s character. This combined with her empathy and great artistic gifts allowed her to build a body of work centred on a sense of place and sense of humanity. In the apparently ‘ordinary’, she found endless inspiration, painting and drawing the same people, places and landscape with increasing fascination and absorption.
Eardley’s early death was a great loss, but this show, one of several major treatments over the past decade or so, firmly fixes her in the top echelon of British post-war art.