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2 December 2020updated 09 Dec 2020 2:33pm

How Joan Eardley painted the hard way

To depict the elements properly, Eardley immersed herself in them.

By Michael Prodger

Joan Eardley was, it seems, never meant for happiness; malign fate had its eyes on her, even as a child. At the age of seven her father died by suicide, the result of shell-shock and depression brought on by having been gassed during the First World War and, subsequently, the failure of his dairy business. At 34 she suffered a slipped disc – perhaps, ironically, the result of constantly looking around while painting – and spent the rest of her life in pain, relieved only by a surgical collar. In 1963, aged 42, she was diagnosed with breast cancer which had spread to the brain, and she died shortly afterwards. Even at her most content, when painting around the near deserted fishing village of Catterline in Aberdeenshire, she sounded a word of warning: “If you want experience of understanding and beauty then envy me now – but if you want happiness then don’t.”

As a painter too she put herself through the mill. She kept a distance from the London art world – although she developed her own Kitchen Sink style in the 1950s when she painted the street children of Townhead in Glasgow, then an area of slum tenements. While at Catterline, in trying to evoke “the notion of landscape inside me”, she preferred to work outdoors in all weathers, the stormier and colder the better. This deliberate turning away from conventional beauty and comfort, both material and visual, gives her work its potency: her children are vibrant with feral life, her landscapes are concentrations of weather in which wind, wet, snow, ozone – the stuff of nature – are tangible, sometimes literally so, when she stuck seeds and grasses into her paint.

Even though the people, land and seascapes of Scotland are the subjects of almost all her work, Eardley was born in Sussex and did much of her growing up and early art training in Blackheath in south London. It wasn’t until 1939 that her Scottish mother, fearful of German bombs, took Joan and her sister to live in Glasgow. There Eardley enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art and spent her summers travelling around the Highlands and Western Isles, once in a horse and caravan she had bought with a friend. Her peers included “the two Roberts” – MacBryde and Colquhoun – who shortly left for London and became hard-drinking and occasionally dangerous staples of the Soho group that gathered around Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. For a mentor, however, Eardley looked to the Polish émigré artist Josef Herman.

[see also: How Edward McKnight Kauffer turned advertising into art]

On graduating, a career in teaching was quickly taken up and abandoned, and during the last years of the war she worked as a joiner’s apprentice for a boat-building firm and painted camouflage on landing craft destined for the Normandy beaches. In 1949, subsidised by art scholarships, Eardley travelled to France and then to Italy, where she stayed for several months. The drawings and paintings she made there won her acclaim when shown in her first solo exhibition and confirmed her intention to be a painter.

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Eardley’s interest in landscapes really started in 1950, when she caught mumps and was taken by a friend to recuperate at Catterline. The village, of only 30 houses, was to be her alternative to Glasgow and she went on to spend part of each year there until she moved permanently in 1961. Even then she ensured her life was spartan: her final cottage had an earth floor and no electricity, running water or sanitation. The land and coast – “just vast waste and vast seas, vast areas of cliff” – were enough: “This is a strange place,” she said, but “it always excites me.”

No greater excitement came than when, listening to the weather report, she would hear news of a storm and either head by Lambretta for a favoured exposed spot or set herself down nearby, trussed up in an old RAF flying suit, and start to paint with her easel tethered by ropes and rocks (she herself had a penchant for steamed puddings, as though to weigh herself down too). She often worked on board rather than canvas because it was more stable in the gales and she could, like a wind-deranged Monet, paint in series, producing several pictures of the same storm. She would also sometimes work with boat paint mixed in with her oils.

The sheer elemental experience of the painting process is obvious in the pictures. Some of Eardley’s seascapes became panoramic themselves, up to six feet wide, while others were square, as if – eyes squinting and part shut against the wind and rain – she had narrowed her focus to the very centre of her field of vision.

[see also: The wild pictures of Rosa Bonheur]

In this picture, Winter Sun No. 1 of 1961-62, now owned by the Birmingham Museums Trust, she painted the weather in a gentle mood, looking across Catterline Bay from the north. This is a painting of a meteorological pause, the rough stuff has passed though and while the sea has been left far from still, Eardley has matched its movement with the vigour of the land – all smears, scratches and scumblings. The two elements face off against one another just as abstraction and representation confront one another in her handling.

This is not, however, an unconsidered picture, for all the seeming rapidity of its brushwork. The washing line is carefully placed to form a triumphal arch on the approach to the village and a watery sun is precisely aligned with it, though with barely enough warmth to dry the socks and shirts hanging somewhat forlornly on the line. The foreground swipe of turquoise suggests a stream disgorging, while the smudge of red has no real function yet does not look out of place: the picture called for a colour highlight so she put one in.

When cancer struck, Eardley was incapacitated, housebound and reduced to painting still-lifes of flowers brought to her by friends. It was not her idea of art or of living: “I hate it when bodies go wrong like this,” she said, “I’m really quite frightened.” In Winter Sun No. 1 the tide is up but the curve of the bay is rimmed by a narrow beach. After she died it was there that her ashes were scattered, in the shifting space between land and sea. 

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed