Joan Eardley: An Introduction

eardley flowers by the wayside
Joan Eardley, Flowers by the Wayside, 24 x 22 inches, oil on canvas

“…she also had an uncanny feeling for the seasons of the year, and for the power of the wind and the sea. She could depict a precise state of weather at an exact time of year. She was a painter of the seasons and the weather rather than a landscape painter, although the landscape in front of her penetrating gaze was always accurately represented. Here eye was, as one of the poets she inspired described it, a prism of truth.” (Joan Eardley by William Buchanan for the University of Edinburgh Press, 1976, p. 2)

Joan Eardley is a painter who increasingly influences my thinking about the relationship between painter and place. She worked in both the city and in a remote coastal community, and traveled quickly from the Edinburgh, where her work focused mostly on portraiture and urban life, to Catterline (in Aberdeenshire, Scotland) when alerted by her Catterline neighbors that weather was moving in. In both locales her method was immersive – connecting profoundly with her subjects – and reflects her commitment to deep inquiry.

Eardley died young, just 42 when breast cancer took her life, but in a fifteen-year career developed an important body of work. In one way her Catterline paintings draw on the history of Scottish painting (William McTaggart, for example), and in another are on the leading edge of British Post-War painting. I have no doubt, had she lives, Eardley would today be considered one of the most important British painters of the 20thc. Regardless of such speculation, she left us incredible paintings from which we can learn.

Joan Eardley painting at Catterline. Photo by Audrey Walker

Beyond Scottish influences, in Eardley’s work I see references to the 19thc. revolution in European painting. Her use of space is reminiscent of Cezanne’s flipped tabletop, and her urban compositions and portraits reference Matisse. She’s also in conversation with her contemporaries – with paint handling that evokes Elaine De Kooning and Nicolas de Staël. Clearly, despite having been called a provincial painter during her life, Eardley was attentive to the currents in mid-century European and American painting. The art critic Douglas Hall argued that Eardley was an important painter,

“if one accepts the basic tenants of modern art on the relationship of the painted surface to the experience that suggested it. In all modern art this relationship is not based on description, but on an analogy. The tumbled paint in an Eardley seascape is not an attempt to deceive the eye, but to produce an analogue of the tumbled water within the terms of the painted canvas. In Eardley’s case to produce this analogue involved a total immersion (figurative and almost literally) in the subject, and unlike many modern artists who have preferred to work out their analogues in the studio she worked on hers on the spot…It is because Eardley is so convincing on these levels that she must be awarded a high rank in recent painting.”  (Joan Eardleyby William Buchanan for the University of Edinburgh Press, 1976, p. 81)

Unlike many abstract painters of her era (but like Elaine De Kooning and Nicolas de Staël) observation was equally important to the act of painting. Speaking of her process of observation in the landscape, Eardley described her method:

“I find that the more I know a place or the more a particular spot, the more I find to paint. I very often find that I take my paints to a certain place, begin to paint there, and perhaps by the end of the summer I have not moved from that place. In fact I have worn a kind of mark in the ground – there is no grass left. I just leave my paints there overnight and eventually a studio seems to have arrived outside. I might just turn in the middle of a painting and see something else and run back, and get another canvas and try to do that, but it is still the same spot really, the same feeling that I am trying to grasp.”

Biographical Information:

Art UK — Joan Eardley: painting inner-city Glasgow and the rugged landscapes of Catterline

The Herald (Scotland) article on the 2021 Joan Eardley Centenary. 

From Wikipedia: Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley (18 May 1921 – 16 August 1963) was a British artist noted for her portraiture of street children in Glasgow and for her landscapes of the fishing village of Catterline and surroundings on the North-East coast of Scotland. One of Scotland’s most enduringly popular artists, her career was cut short by breast cancer.[1]Her artistic career had three distinct phases.

From National Galleries Scotland: Joan Eardley (1921-1963) is one of Scotland’s most popular twentieth 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-twentieth century

From BBC Arts: For a young single woman in the 1950s, this was a bold, brave move. Townhead was a slum. Its tenements were condemned, its inhabitants lived in poverty. The entire area was earmarked for demolition. Yet it was here that she discovered a subject which inspired her. Other artists preferred the safety and seclusion of the studio. Eardley went out on the streets, sketching the local children. “I like the friendliness of the backstreets,” she said. “Life is at its most uninhibited here.”

The Courier UK: Joan Eardley is adored in Scotland. As May 18 marks the centenary of her birth, Gayle Ritchie looks at the enduring fascination with the shy artist who made Catterline her home.


4 thoughts on “Joan Eardley: An Introduction

  1. I am most interested in the work of Joan Eardley and as nothing exists in a bubble, I imagine there are a couple of stylistic seeds in the work of Mctaggart that influenced Eardley which she took off and flew with as she developed her unique and authentic way of expression.
    I personally think she should go down as one of the most influential, genuine and authentic painters of the twentieth century, but I suppose I am biased as I absolutely love almost everything she did.

      1. Thanks Pete! I see her influence all over the place in landscape painting yet I rarely hear a reference to her so I wondered if I was missing something. I also see in her work the interpretive power which in my mind is the difference between painters and artists.
        There are a lot of great painters but not so many artists. Also it feels somehow authentic

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