Joan Eardley 1921-1963


Aitken Dott & Son, Edinburgh;
Private Collection;
Private Collection;

Private Collection.


Christopher Andreae, Joan Eardley (Fanham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT, 2013), p. 177, illustrated. 

Joan Eardley was born in Sussex in 1921, and moved with her mother to Blackheath in 1926 away from her troubled father who committed suicide in 1929. In 1938 Eardley enrolled at Goldsmiths College in London for two terms before continuing her studies at Glasgow School of Art from 1940 until 1943 following the family’s move to Scotland. Throughout her life, Eardley formed intense friendships with female companions and female students, including Margot Sandeman and Cordelia Oliver. In the summer of 1948 Eardley won a Carnegie scholarship from the Royal Scottish Academy and a travelling scholarship from Glasgow School of Art, and she spent a year in Florence, returning to Glasgow in autumn 1949.

Equally renowned for her sympathetic portraits of slum children in Glasgow as her atmospheric depictions of the North Sea and the Scottish landscape around Catterline Bay, Eardley was elected a Royal Scottish Academician in 1963, the same year as her first exhibition in London with Roland, Browse and Delbanco. She died in August of that year from breast cancer, and a memorial exhibition at Roland, Browse and Delbanco was held in 1965. In 2007-8, her work had a major retrospective at the National Galleries of Scotland after previous posthumous exhibitions at the Talbot Rice Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy in 1988.

In 1951, whilst convalescing from an illness, Eardley first visited Catterline Bay on the east coast of Scotland in Aberdeenshire overlooking the North Sea. By the following year, Eardley was commuting between Glasgow and Catterline Bay where she lived in various cottages directly on the bay in assorted primitive states without running water or electricity. Catterline Bay proved a magnetic location for Eardley. She was drawn to the awe-inspiring, tempestuous North Sea, the immense storms that could be seen approaching the coast from beyond the horizon, the ferocious elements of wind, rain, snow, occasionally sun, and the incomparable quality of light as it broke through an endless variety of cloud formations. In one sense she was continuing, in a palpably modernist aesthetic, a particularly British landscape tradition, epitomised by Constable’s meteorological studies of clouds and Turner’s exploration of atmospheric effects. Eardley wrote of Catterline Bay, “I find the more I know the place, the more I know the particular spot, the more I find to paint in that particular spot…it’s just a vast waste, vast seas, vast areas of cliff – all these areas for painting.”

Painting in Catterline Bay, Eardley revelled in the rawness and brutality of the environment, the punishing force of the sea and the weather. Her paintings reveal a pantheistic union with nature and her surroundings; she even included products of nature – seeds, flowerheads, grasses – in her later paintings, an artistic decision that provoked critical sneers from Alan Bowness amongst others but now makes Eardley seems prophetically ahead of her time. Her working process right on the shore of the bay in all weathers put her at the mercy of the elements. Lilian Browse, in the introduction to her 1965 memorial exhibition, wrote “In the winter months in Catterline she painted raging seas and storm swept skies with her boards lashed to the easel and her hands frozen with cold – she felt herself so close to nature that she was unable to seek the refuge of her studio for fear the mood might pass.” In 1954 various European Tachiste artists, including Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulage, and Nicolas de Stael, were exhibited at the Society of Scottish Artists exhibition in Edinburgh. The influence of Tachisme is tangible in Eardley’s Catterline works in the raw, primitive potency Eardley discovers in the Scottish landscape, the vital and transgressive energy imbued in her seascapes.

‘Catterline Bay’, c. 1957-61, depicts a moment of relative calm on the bay, with Eardley focusing as much on the patterns and colours of the curving coastline as the sea. To the left, crashing, foaming waves pound the shore whilst a band of rain falls over the far left of the panorama. Balancing such excitement, near serene shallows are enclosed by the distinctive bend of Catterline bay. Eardley painted with both oil paint and boat paint on hardboard, and ‘Catterline Bay’ reveals her technique of using whichever implement was to hand. Loose thinly applied paint depicts the vertical fall of rain, whilst application of paint with a palette knife, thickly applied, of white paint with touches of pink and blue form the white horses of crashing waves. Thin layers of oil applied with long horizontal strokes traversing across the board unite the panorama, with Eardley using the end of her paintbrush handle to scratch along the board, emphasising the wide sweep of the bay. Peaceful yet beset by the approaching menace of a storm, ‘Catterline Bay’ is an exceptional example of Eardley’s Catterline works: quietly atmospheric, delicate, restrained and still brimming with elemental force.