Joan Eardley

Joan Eardley (1921-1963) is one of Scotland's most popular 20th century artists. Her powerful and expressive paintings transformed her everyday surroundings, including the rugged Scottish coastline and Glasgow's street children. During her lifetime she was considered a member of the post war British avant-garde, who portrayed the realities of life in the mid-20th century.

Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley was born on 18 May 1921 in Sussex. In 1939 Eardley's family moved to Scotland, settling in the Glasgow suburb of Bearsden in 1940. Eardley enrolled at Glasgow School of Art the same year, where she met her fellow student and lifelong friend Margot Sandeman. In her final year Eardley painted Self Portrait, 1943, which won her the Sir James Guthrie Prize for portraiture. It was later purchased by her teacher Hugh Adam Crawford.

Around this time Eardley was influenced by Henry Moore; many of her early life drawings feature stylised, heavy limbed women. She was also interested in Stanley Spencer's portrayals of ordinary working people and his influence can be seen in her studies of Glasgow street scenes, including Young Man Playing an Accordion, 1940s.

Joan Eardley, Self-Portrait, 1943

Travels in Italy and France

Eardley went on to study at Hospitalfield House's post graduate art school in Arbroath in 1947, run by James Cowie. The two did not always see eye to eye, although she acknowledged in a letter to her mother that she was learning a great deal from him. She often went down to Arbroath Harbour, making studies including Crew in a Fishing Boat in Arbroath Harbour, 1947. Eardley completed a post diploma year at Glasgow School of Art the following year, graduating in 1948.

In 1948 Eardley won a Carnegie scholarship from the Royal Scottish Academy and a travelling scholarship from Glasgow School of Art, allowing her to go travelling through Italy and France. She began her journey in Florence, where she was particularly drawn to the simplicity of peasant life. After seeing Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel, Eardley wrote in a letter home, 'Masaccio saw the beggars, the poor people of Florence … they might have been painted only yesterday.'

In the countryside outside Florence she made studies of the locals including Italian Peasant Seated on the Ground, 1948-9. The peasant custom of putting beaded bridles on the oxen led to the vivid chalk study A Pair of Oxen, 1948-9. Eardley also befriended her landlady in Florence, who insisted on making repairs to Eardley's skirt, as seen in Old Italian Woman Sewing, 1948-9.

Joan Eardley, Italian Peasant Sitting on the Ground, c. 1948-1949

Glasgow and Childhood

In 1949 Eardley rented a studio at 21 Cochrane Street in Glasgow. There she made chalk drawings of the local tenement children, who became regular visitors to her studio. Many of these drawings were on scraps of sandpaper or loose sheets joined together by paperclips.

Joan Eardley, Head of a Child
Joan Eardley, Head of a Boy (Andrew Macaulay), his Hand on his Chin

These drawings provided Eardley with imagery for many of her oil paintings, including Street Kids, 1949-51. She was never without a camera after moving to her nearby second studio at 204 St James Road and many of her photographs also provided subject matter for paintings. Eardley's close friend and photographer Audrey Walker helped the painter gather material, as well as documenting the artist.

Eardley was one of a generation of artists drawn to post-war urban childhood, including John Bratby and Peter Blake. She often portrayed children against the backdrop of boarded up shops and buildings damaged by the war. Her work was also concurrent with childhood folklorists Peter and Iona Opie and the filmmaker James Ritchie who were recording children's rhymes and customs at that time; Eardley was not alone in realising that this poverty stricken tenement life was a vanishing world.

Joan Eardley, Street Kids, 1949
Joan Eardley, Two Children, 1963 Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016

Joan Eardley in Catterline

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Catterline 

In 1951 Eardley visited the small fishing village of Catterline with her friend Annette Soper. Later in the year, Soper returned to buy the village's clifftop Watch House. Eardley was given free use of the place and she began regularly commuting back and forth between Glasgow and Catterline. In 1955 Eardley bought her own place at Number 1, The Row, in Catterline and in 1959 upgraded to Number 18, which was in better order and faced the sea.

In response to the huge expanses of sea and sky, Eardley's work became larger and more imposing. She was attracted to wild seas and the expressive nature of her paintings such as The Wave, 1961, have been compared with the abstract expressionist style emerging from Europe and America. Eardley greatly admired paintings by Chaim Soutine, Wassily Kandinsky and European Tachisme, although she stated that she would never go completely abstract.

Joan Eardley, The Wave, 1961

She painted on location, often during wild storms, using oil and boat paint mixed with newspaper, sand and grasses on hardboard, as captured in Audrey Walker's photograph Eardley painting facing the sea on the shore at Catterline, 1950s.

Another popular subject was the nearby fields, which Eardley painted during different seasons and climates with a seriality similar to Claude Monet. Her lyrical paintings include Seeded Grasses and Daisies, September, 1960, which combined collaged elements of real grasses and daisies against a sombre sky. Catterline in Winter, 1963, portrays the same fields overcast by a leaden winter sky, in one of her best loved paintings.

Audrey Walker's photograph Eardley painting facing the sea on the shore at Catterline, 1950s
Joan Eardley, Boats on the Shore, about 1963

Late Work 

Many of Eardley's late paintings were of Glasgow's tenement children, including Children and Chalked Wall No. 3, 1963. She left the large oil painting Two Children, 1963 (Glasgow City Council) in her studio unfinished after her death in 1963. These paintings featured collages of sweet papers, cigarette wrappers and newspaper scraps, with the worn lettering of boarded up shop fronts stencilled on. The apparent naivety of her figures in these works is comparable with that of the young David Hockney.

Eardley was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1963. It has been said that when she became too unwell to paint outside she made still life studies of wild flowers brought to her by friends, such as Flowers, after 1963. Even so, in her many letters to her friend Audrey Walker she claimed this genteel subject matter was not her ideal preference. The same year she held an exhibition at Roland, Browse and Delbanco in London, with successful reviews in The TimesThe Guardian and Art News and Review, some comparing her work to TurnerConstable and Courbet.

She died on 16 August 1963, aged just 42. Her ashes were scattered on the beach at Catterline. In January 1964 the hugely successful Joan Eardley Memorial Exhibition opened at Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum at Kelvingrove, before being shown at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. From 2007-2008 the major retrospective, Joan Eardley, was held at the National Gallery Complex in Edinburgh, which examined Eardley's work in both a national and international context.

Joan Eardley, Flowers, 1963