Study Visit: Joan Eardley – A Sense of Place

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – 6th May 2017
with tutor Jim Cowan

I have loved the work of Joan Eardley (1921-1963) for many years and also the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art so this exhibition was a must-see. It was made complete by the friendliness and expertise of  tutor Jim Cowan.

The exhibition focuses on two places about which Eardley was passionate, almost to the exclusion of painting anywhere else. These were Townhead in Glasgow and Catterline , a coastal village on the North Sea in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. These two locations have several characteristics more in common  than might first appear. Both were rundown and poor communities, Townhead from postwar urban decay (the area was almost totally demolished in the 1960s) and Catterline a village hit by the decline of the fishing industry. The social cohesion of both communities, however, appealed to Eardley, as did their dilapidation. She once wrote,

Dilapidation is often more interesting to a painter as is anything that has been used and lived with – whether it be an ivy-covered cottage, a broken farm-cart or an old tenement. (quoted in the exhibition catalogue, Elliott, P Joan Eardley A Sense of Place 2016 National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh)

In Townhead from the mid-1950s her work became focused on drawing and painting of children. This might be plein air but typically was in her studio with local children as models. Information from her sketches and photographs of the buildings in the local community, often including graffiti, provided the background. A favourite of mine in the exhibition was a gouache painting from c. 1961  Three Children at a Tenement Window shown below with some of my sketchbook copies of her sketches of children.

Paintings of children in the past have sometimes been saccharin or have portrayed children as adults. From her close eye contact with children, in the street and in the studio, seen in photographs in the exhibition, Eardley communicates so tangibly  how children are – their looks, their gestures, their mannerisms, their energy. This can be seen so well in the painting above.  She drew and painted children with a simplicity and directness which is reminiscent of Picasso’s paintings of his children and of early Hockney. After her death from breast cancer in 1963 Eardley left unfinished in her studio a painting/collage of two children (not in the exhibition) which shows also her movement to abstraction – shown below alongside Hockney’s 1961 painting We two boys together clinging.

Eardley’s move to abstraction is most dramatic in her seascapes at Catterline.  In her earlier drawings and paintings in the mid 50s she depicts the cottages and fields of the village and the weather conditions, especially storms. By the 1960s these recognisable subjects have become more abstracted, for example in the images below, the pastel Cornfield and Wide Horizon 1960-62 and the oil painting  Summer Sea 1962

Her work expresses so well the changing weather and seasons and also the power of the sea especially with the large format of many of her Catterline paintings.

My maternal grandfather was a fisherman in Devon and I was drawn very much to Eardley’s interest in fishing nets. I did two small carbon stick sketches of her paintings of nets: her earliest in 1956 Drying Salmon Nets  on the beach with the view of the cottages on the clifftop and in 1962,  the the year before she died,  Fishing Nets Catterline. They speak of the work and lives of the fishermen whose livelihood is coming to an end (fishing ceased completely in Catterline in 1975) whose nets will be permanently out to dry. The 1962 painting was also darker and more contained, even hemmed in, than the earlier one and I felt said something, maybe unconsciously, of Eardley’s sense of her own life coming to an end.

What I learned from the visit

1. Eardley’s tireless passion for her art is impressive and her ceaseless energy. Not only the hours she spent sketching children and buildings indoors and out  Townhead but the long hours she spent painting out-of-doors in Catterline often in the most extreme weather. I was struck by her quote in the exhibition catalogue where she uses the word ‘intimate’ and its resonance with the title of Drawing one, part 2 ‘Intimacy’. Her eye contact with children is a good example. I would like to be able to capture the soul of a place or person.

It’s the sort of intimate thing I like (sense of community in Townhead) and I think you’ve got to know something before you paint it….I believe in the sort of emotion that you get from what your eyes show you and what you feel about certain things.”

2. The energy in her work expressed in her method, in her use of pastel for quick sketches and in her amazing brushwork with oil paint, almost stabbing and slashing the canvas. I want to be able to be freer in my own work which I think is typically tight and over controlled. I am trying to do more blind contour and free work with charcoal and pastel to develop this along with convincing representation of a subject.

3. I need to also develop more fully the practice, often referred to on the course too,  of exploring a subject through many different smaller sketches and then working them up into larger compositions and canvasses in the studio. I also liked how she sometimes stuck other pieces of paper to a small sketch to develop the composition.

4.  I want to develop a similar kind of courage to keep developing and experimenting in my work. She describes in an interview how she is never really satisfied with what she’s trying to do so she keeps on trying  and the more she tries the more she thinks of new ways of doing the particular subject and so you just go on and on.

Thanks to Jim Cowan for his leadership and for good conversations in a wonderful exhibition in a fabulous gallery.

Some reviews

Tutor Jim Cowan”s review on Weareoca’s-‘-sense-place’

Exhibition Catalogue


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