Joan Eardley at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

This Edinburgh show honours a magical 20th-century painter who captured physicality on canvas
Joan Eardley’s ‘Catterline in Winter’ (1963) © Estate of Joan Eardley

In an Edinburgh that enjoys only scant, wan daylight in December, Joan Eardley’s thickly impastoed paintings of Catterline, the nearly deserted Aberdeenshire fishing village where the artist lived in the 1950s, shine with the intensity of icons. In “Catterline in Winter”, a row of cottages and a snow-covered path glow in moonlight under slate-grey skies. In “Snow”, crops poke through icy ground on a patchwork of fields palely lit by a hanging orange sun. A crusty white wave streaks across a stony shore, leaving blots and drips of paint in “January Flow Tide”. Glittery highlights break through the darkening, late-afternoon cobalts and ultramarines of “Seascape (Foam and Blue Sky)”.

The sensitively orchestrated retrospective Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art celebrates a significant mid-20th-century painter. All the major works, from public and private collections, are here, plus drawings often on show for the first time. “Approaching Storm”, her series of frenzied black pastel zigzags, and paintings with grit from the beach embedded in the surface such as “The Wave” bear witness to Eardley’s working processes, outdoors, by preference in winter and cruel weather.

She never strikes a false note. Although a flair for pictorial construction is evident even in the freest sketches — inky blotches denoting houses, a wash of yellow watercolour bleeding into grey for a sunset sky in “Row of Cottages, Catterline” — these are deeply felt personal responses, trapping momentary sensation and what Eardley called “the notion of landscape inside me”.

But photographs and letters also show that what looks spontaneous — a crashing wave, a reflection in a pool of water, as in the 1958 “Winter Sea” and “Seascape” paintings — was hard won. “Sun went down red as I want — but the tide instead of being full in was full out and therefore where there should have been a whole foreground full of sea lighted by the sun there was a whole foreground full of rock and no sea at all. So no good,” she wrote at the end of a day’s work that winter. “Catterline in Winter” was painted in a particularly harsh season, 1963, when “in between blizzards it has been so much just what I wanted for my painting”.

Across a decade, Catterline came to offer changing challenges as Eardley’s ambitions grew. She concentrated initially on the strip of cottages in compositions as solidly constructed as the houses themselves. Identifying with the landscape’s physical details, she employed collage, gluing real grasses and seeds into oil paint in “Seeded Grasses and Daisies”.

‘Two Glasgow Lassies’ (1962–63) © Estate of Joan Eardley

Drying fishing nets suspended between larch poles offered the formal pleasures of fixed dark verticals against flexible horizontals of rope and fabric in the figurative “Drying Salmon Nets”; and more abstract treatments in “Salmon Nets” and “Fishing Nets Catterline”, where nets stretch like vast spider webs as Eardley experiments with runny, clotting home-made paint. Seascapes include the marvellous “Boats on the Shore” where, through swirling mists details of Catterline’s human element shimmer: the low-bottomed blue fishing boat “The Linfall”, the green “Mascot” with its upright light, its skipper sketched in yellow waterproofs.

If Eardley had worked in London, lived long and been male, she would now be as esteemed as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff for her expressive, luminous figurative paintings. Like them, she launched a career in the 1940s-50s, working exclusively from life on a few motifs she cared passionately about. Like them, from a frugal, secluded studio, she dug deep into her subjects to bring a whole world into existence through the material handling of pigment as a transforming, living substance.

Catterline, where Eardley bought a cottage with earth floors and no electricity or running water, is half that world. Its urban mirror is Glasgow’s slums, where, in a tenement building in Townhead, a troop of young siblings climbed the steep staircase to a candlelit studio, to be paid in threepences for being depicted in what turned out to be the 20th century’s most memorable British child portraits.

Taken together, the two parts of Eardley’s oeuvre declare a singular vision of close-knit communities under extreme pressure from harsh conditions; one is emptying out, the other is overcrowded, and nothing is still, the instability of weather and waves paralleled by restless children who twist, fidget and grow up fast. Eardley was painting against obsolescence: by 1963, when she died aged 42 of cancer, Townhead had been razed; soon afterwards the last fishing boat left Catterline.

Housed in a former Victorian orphanage whose labyrinthine corridors, worn stone staircases and upper rooms with too-high windows have never quite shed an air of sadness, Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art is an affecting setting for the Townhead portraits. Solemn, lively, garrulous and awkward, these children in shorts, gymslips and hand-me-down knitted cardigans stare back at us with curiosity and indomitable spirit.

Eardley at work in her Catterline garden
Eardley at work in her Catterline garden © Jane Walker

There are virtuoso abbreviated pieces of bright patches of colour against flat grounds: the girl with wide toothy grin and cheeks scarlet from the cold in the pastel “Pink Jumper”, or the redhead with a squint in the gouache “Red Haired Girl”. Pastels on sandpaper — “Two Boys”, “Two Glasgow Lassies” — are at once sparkling and raw. Compositions worked from sketches feature fragments of a tenement, stand-in for an entire urban milieu: the redhead reappears in “Child Before Tenement Window”, while a willowy child in “Girl and Chalked Wall” and round-faced boys with jug ears in “Two Children before Lettered Wall” are framed against graffiti, lightly implying innocence against a threatening exterior. A Rotten Row confectionery shop, in increasing disrepair, recurs; “dilapidation is often more interesting to a painter, as is anything that has been used and lived with”, Eardley believed.

Eardley’s graffiti walls connect to pop art, just as her seascapes connect to mid-20th-century abstraction, but really Eardley is an independent voice, depicting with sympathy but brutal integrity a world that is vital and authentic but not obviously beautiful.

The children would not keep still, she said, so “I watch them move about and do the best I can. They are completely uninhibited . . . full of what’s gone on today, who’s broken in to what shop and who’s flung a pie in whose face [yet] I feel they are for me — this richness Glasgow has . . . a living thing. As long as Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint.”

To May 21,

Photographs: Estate of Joan Eardley; Jane Walker

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