The first of these are her remarkably candid paintings of children in the depressed urban Glasgow of the 1950s and 60s. The gangs of children that littered the streets outside her studio in Townhead became the inspiration for some of her most celebrated pieces. Eardley captured the wild spirit of these figures, whose grubby appearance was not from lack of care or love, but a result of their over-populated environment. So used to their surroundings are they that they appear almost oblivious to their somewhat grotesque appearance in her art.
In her early work the children are strongly individualised, but towards the end of Eardley’s career they become more generic, and the low tones she uses make them almost indistinct from their environment. It is interesting that Eardley painted them so, since these communities virtually vanished in the late 20th century in the wake of the new town movement which relocated many families from industrialised cities to outlying new towns. It may be possible that Eardley saw these children as the last of a dying species, one that she preserved in her compositions.
The second facet of her art on which this exhibition focuses is her depictions of the small fishing village of Catterline, south of Aberdeen. At the time, Glasgow and Catterline were almost parallel opposites of one another: one urban, the other rural; one over-populated, the other under-populated. The art Eardley produced during this period reflects these differences. While her Catterline pieces concentrated on landscape and a sense of vastness, her Glasgow pieces captured the youthful character of the aged and densely-populated city tenements and their inhabitants.
Despite their differences, these two subjects had much in common. Both were poor, working communities with rich history and personality. Yet there is no evidence that Eardley was attracted to any political agenda or cultural movement. Rather, her choice of subject was born from opportunity. Her unique style, however, was much more deliberate. In a letter she wrote from Paris to fellow art student Margot Sandeman in the late 1940s, she expressed a desire to be ‘unlike anyone else’, an objective she undoubtedly achieved.
In her heavily layered and textured paintings she incorporated dark tones that contrasted greatly with the style of the Scottish Colourists whom she had studied during her time at the Glasgow School of Art. Furthermore, the fine art for which she was recognised was not exactly ‘fine’ either, but imprecise and urgent. She resisted the trend for abstraction, instead opting for a kind of social realism that represented her relationship with the tangible world around her. There is no sentimentality in her work; she painted the world as she saw it and with fearless honesty.
At the age of 42 Eardley died of breast cancer and her ashes were scattered on the beach at Catterline. Like the land she revered, her legacy has endured over the years in her adopted homeland of Scotland, where the National Gallery of Modern Art has chosen to celebrate her art once more.
'A Sense of Place' will be hosted by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 21 May 2017. For tickets and further details click here.
Catterline from which Joan Eardley drew inspiration
Photograph by Islay McLeod