Art Criticism

Living on the Margins – Joan Eardley at the Scottish Gallery

Joan Eardley Centenary, The Scottish Gallery
30 July – 28 August 2021

Lonely people are drawn to the sea. Not for this artist the surge and glitter of salons

‘Flood Tide’, Joan Eardley

She has often been described as a forgotten Scottish painter. Neither of those things are quite accurate. Joan Eardley, who died in 1963 at the age of forty-two, has always been admired by the cognoscenti for her soulful portraits of Glaswegian children and her fluid, expressionistic landscapes. She was not Scottish but English, only moving to Scotland by chance. But what is undoubtedly true is that for a socially awkward, young gay woman, the male-dominated 1950s artworld, and Glasgow in particular, was a difficult place in which to make a mark.

Born in 1921 in Sussex, on a diary farm run by her father, she was five when her mother took her and her sister to live with her grandmother and aunt in Blackheath. It’s not completely clear what happened but it seems the farm failed and was sold. Three years later in 1929, her father, who had been gassed in the Great War, committed suicide. War was, again, to colour her life when, in late 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War, she, her mother, grandmother and sister all relocated to Bearsden, a comfortable middle-class suburb just north-west of Glasgow.

In London, Eardley had briefly attended Goldsmiths College of Art and from Bearsden she, now, began to commute into the city to attend classes at the Glasgow School of Art. It was to became her creative hub for a decade, providing her with evening classes and, eventually, a travelling scholarship that enabled her, in 1949, to visit France and Italy to broaden her art historical knowledge. As an adult, she could have moved back south and become part of the Soho art scene – drunk with Francis Bacon and the two ubiquitous Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde – but Glasgow suited this cripplingly shy young woman who seemed to feel she didn’t quite belong anywhere. During her time at Glasgow Art School, she began to make frequent visits to the studio of the Polish artist Josef Herman, who happened to be living in the city. His political images of Welsh miners and loose brushwork were to become influential to her future work, perhaps giving her permission to broaden the scope of both her style and subject matter.

Girl with a Poke of Chips, Joan Eardley, oil on canvas with newspaper, 68 x 50 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
The Striped Cardigan, Joan Eardley, 1962, pastel on glass paper, 26 x 24 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Grey Beach and Sky, Joan Eardley, 1962, oil on board, 56 x 107.5 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Catterline Landscape, Joan Eardley, c.1962, oil on board, 94 x 104 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery

By temperament she was drawn to the marginal and the liminal and felt at home among the condemned tenements of the Gorbals. An outsider, she was attracted to those on the wrong side of the tracks, to a fast disappearing Glasgow, to the gypsy camp at Bearsden, the cranes and bomb damage of Clydebank, to the city’s tight family clans and street life, seeing the place as a rich, vibrant entity. Setting up her studio in Townhead – by any stretch of the imagination a soot-blasted slum – close to George Square and the City Chambers, she befriended the Samson children. With their raw cheeks and snot encrusted noses, they epitomised a warmth and authenticity she seemed to crave. She was, by all accounts, ‘a lovely, lovely person’, though quite ‘mannish looking’ who used to give the ‘wee sketches’ she tacked to her studio wall to the children who posed for her, often to be used by their mothers, later, as kindling.

Like that other perennial artist outsider, Van Gogh, Eardley had natural empathy for the dispossessed. She felt at home among those who were too busy surviving to make judgements about her, simply accepting her for who she was. She loved the vibrancy of the Samsons. ‘They are full of what’s gone on today,’ she said in a taped interview:

– who has broken into what shop and who has flung a pie in whose face – it goes on and on. They just let out their life and energy… I do try to think about them in painterly terms…all the bits of red and bits of colour and they wear each other’s clothes – never the same things twice running – they are Glasgow… as long as Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint.

These relationships, without the need for social niceties, suited her down to the ground.

An aura of poverty clung to the children she painted, The Girl with a Poke of Chips (1960-63), with her dirty snagged hair and rosy cheeks, the eczema-raw lipped little girl with the pudding basin hair cut in The Stripped Cardigan (1962). Eardley made thousands of quick sketches of these rag-tag-and-bob-tail children who’d only oblige her by staying still for so long. Many of the drawings were made in pastel on sandpaper to catch as many pigments as possible. Her hasty dark drawings share something of the raw immediacy and compassion of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters that depicts the harsh life of those in the coal mining district of the Borinage, Belgium. Other paintings, such as the dominantly blue Girl and Chalked Wall, (c. 1959-62), where a small girl is subsumed into the pattern of graffiti on the wall behind her, elide a sense of place with the people of that poverty-hardened community, in much the same way as Paula Modersohn-Becker did with the peasant children she met in the village of Worpswede on the north German moors. At her best, these are moving, insightful portraits but, at times, perhaps due to the sheer number she did, they slip into a mawkish sentimentality that smacks of the Montmartre pavement artist’s wide-eyed urchins.

Eardley’s first paintings of Catterline date from the 1950s. Catterline was a fishing village with a population of around eighty: ‘just vast waste, and vast seas, vast areas of cliff.’ Eardley visited the village for ten years, staying with her friend Annette Stephen (née Soper) who offered her the free use of her property, before renting a cottage and eventually buying her own in 1959. It was in Catterline that she found her real subject in the wide fields and shoreline, the panoramic views from the cliffs. Although mostly domestic in scale, these paintings have the immersive drama of larger works. The gnarled trees blasted by spray and wind, the land honed by centuries of agriculture and the pounding rhythms of the sea give the viewer the sense of being immersed in the landscape, as one might be in the rich language of a Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem. There’s a visceral immediacy here that verges on the spiritual, an attempt to represent what cannot be said in words. As René Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred, (1984) ‘Violence is the heart and soul of the sacred’.

Like Turner, who allegedly lashed himself to the mast of steamship for four hours during a nocturnal storm in order to recall it with greater accuracy, Eardley strode out into snowstorms and gale force winds in her RAF flying suit and boots, her Sybil-Thorndike-Joan-of-Arc haircut soaked against her broad face, to paint in all weathers, her easel held in place with rocks and rope to stop it blowing away. The result was a set of extraordinary elemental paintings where the expressive handling of paint lead not only to an intense drama but animated the pent up maelstrom within her, the depression, the outsider status at her ‘inappropriate’ female loves.

Yet Eardley became a valued part of the village community, finding a place for herself on this edge of the land and sea. She worked tirelessly, walking around the untamed windblown countryside with a sketchbook. With its dirty light and dark cloud-laden sky that threaten the salt blown tree in the left of the canvas, Catterline Landscape (1962), is a work of great sensibility. While Grey Beach and Sky (1962) has all the painterly and emotional spectacle of Constable’s Rainstorm over the Sea (1824-28), with its thunderous black clouds and torrential downpour that captures, as does Eardley’s own painting, the atmosphere in a few hasty sweeps of the brush. The sea’s turbulent movement is achieved by the pulled white paint sweeping in a wave of spume up the dark beach to the small white cottage. It was, as she describes it: ‘A big sea – with lovely light – greyness and blowing swirling mists – and latterly a strong wind blowing from the south, blowing up great froths of whiteness of the sea, like soap suds into the field behind out wee house.’ Yet a male critic criticised her for not being able to free herself from representation and embrace pure abstraction, comparing her unfavourably to the Cornish Peter Lanyon. But this was to misunderstand her work and the equivalent of complaining that Emile Nolde wasn’t Picasso.

If Joan Eardley hadn’t been a shy gay woman, who hid herself away in the depths of Scotland, but had been part of the bohemian Soho set – and more conveniently for the times – a man, she would have, undoubtedly, been better known. But because she was a woman, her fate, like that of her contemporary, the artist Sheila Fell, who painted the Cumberland landscape, was not to be taken seriously. Despite her outsider status, she was a natural painter with the equivalent of perfect pitch. Paint was her language, one in which she could give voice to her quelled passions and love of nature for, as Van Gogh once wrote: ‘Art is to console those who are broken by life.’

Published in The London Magazine

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