Joan Eardley, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh – review

Joan Eardley was born within a decade of Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, and like them worked against mid-20th-century abstraction to produce turbulently expressive paintings concentrated on a few familiar subjects. Eardley died in 1963, aged 42. Had she lived a long, full life, would she now be as celebrated as these masters of postwar figuration?

This show, launching in Edinburgh before moving to London in May, offers a chance to reassess her achievement. Eardley’s originality lies in two bodies of work: portraits of Glasgow tenement children, especially the dozen Samson siblings, and winter seascapes of Catterline, the remote Scottish fishing village where she lived alone in a clifftop cottage from the mid-1950s. These subjects are similarly challenging in that they never keep still – swirling mists, grey skies, waves crashing against rocks in “Todhead Point” and “Bay, Catterline”; children skipping or scribbling by a tenement window in a chill blue/white light in “Glasgow Children Drawing with Chalk” and “Children and Chalk Wall”.

The vitality and authenticity of these motifs attracted Eardley, who answered their rawness and lack of obvious beauty with a brutal painterly integrity, objective, full of sympathy but never sentiment. With their rough faces red with cold, wide blotchy mouths and direct stares, Eardley’s street children especially, often painted in pastel on fine glass paper, lending sparkle and spontaneity, look powerful in their obdurate sense of self, and vulnerable. “Pink Jumper” is a masterpiece of abbreviation, distortion, pentimenti, non-natural colour, conveying the immediate presence of a young girl. All of them demonstrate Eardley as the greatest child portraitist since Soutine.

From Wednesday until April 27,

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