Credit: Joan Eardley

Portrait of a Scottish Artist: Joan Eardley

By Erin Doak

Joan Eardley’s paintings resonate with countless Scots due to the exploration of the country’s conflicting dualities in her work.

Joan Eardley (1921-1963) produced some of the most significant works in the history of Scottish art during the mid-20th century, splitting her time between painting the street children of Glasgow’s East End and the wild sea in the rural northeast of Scotland. Her work resonates with generations of Scots due to her bold portrayal of two conflicting elements of the country during the 1950s and 60s. 

Having just finished her studies at the Glasgow School of Art, Eardley bought a studio in the deprived Townhead district of Glasgow in 1943. While living here she became friendly with local families, and the children playing in the street became the subject of her paintings. The close connections that she formed with these children radiate through in her raw and expressive portraits of them, set against the backdrop of post war Glasgow. 

While wealth was brought into Glasgow through its shipbuilding industry and its rapid industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, the increasing urbanisation of the city also worsened overcrowding and poverty, with entire families often being housed in single-room tenement flats. During the 1950s and 60s, Glasgow began to undergo a process of modernisation which simultaneously instigated the demolition of many of these tenement buildings. Eardley’s paintings capture this transitional period with a sense of urgency; she painted quickly and expressively, contrasting the city’s decaying buildings with the vivacity of the children who lived in them. 

Eardley bought a small, dilapidated cottage in the north-eastern Scottish village Catterline in 1955, after discovering it when driving with a friend. This cottage became her art studio and she travelled back and forth between Glasgow and Catterline, with boards for painting strapped to her motorbike, from this point right up until her death in 1963. Some of Eardley’s most iconic works were produced during her time at Catterline, where she would take her easel down to the stormy sea front to paint. Most of her Catterline works were painted from the same spot, looking onto the sea; in a BBC interview, Eardley said that her choice to paint the same subject matter over and over again prompted her to keep finding new inspiration, and that the more she got to know a place, the more she found to paint there. 

This type of artistic practice recalls a history of plein air painting which dates back to the early 19th century with the birth of naturalism, and which became an intrinsic principle of impressionism. Artists like Monet and Van Gogh would set up their easels outside in order to capture the shifting, transient effects of sunlight on the natural world, seeking not to represent nature in a realistic way, but instead their subjective perceptions of it. 

It was in these last few years of her life that Eardley began to attract UK-wide recognition, hosting numerous exhibitions across the country including a critically acclaimed exhibition in London in 1963. Her artistic career ended prematurely just a few months after this, when she lost her life to breast cancer aged 42. 

Earlier this year, the Scottish Women and the Arts Research Network (SWARN) came together to celebrate the centenary of Joan Eardley with exhibitions and events displaying works from throughout her career. This provided an opportunity for Scottish art institutions to come together to publicly celebrate Joan Eardley’s life and contribution to Scottish art in the 20th century, an artist whose work resonates through its universal themes of childhood, life and nature and its intimate portrayal of an ephemeral moment in Glasgow’s history. 


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