A new exhibition comes to The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in July and August to mark the Centenary of artist Joan Eardley...
In the fifty-eight years since her death from cancer in 1963, Joan Eardley’s reputation as one of Britain's finest artists has never been higher, with the raw urgency of her paintings contrasting with their timelessness in a way that is still very keenly felt by those who experience her work.
Her paintings explore cultural identity – the innocence of childhood, even in adversity and the destructive and regenerative power of nature; she interrogated community and nature in their most raw forms allowing us to ponder our own fragile existence. In an early painting, Woman Knitting, 1948, we see a regular subject, Jeannie Kelso. Shown in her floral house apron and shawl, her swollen fingers at work on her knitting, this is a prime example of what would become one of the chief themes of Eardley’s life; the dignity and character of the human spirit.
Eardley frequently broke with tradition and convention, both as a painter and as a person, and no artist has ever recreated the life and community of Glasgow in the same way that she did. Indeed, Eardley’s Glasgow is one of the central themes of this Centenary exhibition, with a focus on the works she produced in and around her Townhead studio. These works are frequently about children; even the paintings of looming tenements usually have children in the street or gaping out of windows. The buildings are the setting and backdrop for the lives of the human subjects who were the main preoccupation of the urban Eardley. In later paintings such as Girl and Chalked Wall, c. 1959-62, Eardley combines the figure and the city in a new way. The figure of a child is subsumed into the rich texture of graffiti on the wall behind so that the two have become one, as they were for the artist – place and people forming a community she valued so dearly.
The exhibition also explores her works from Catterline in Aberdeenshire, where Eardley had a home from 1954, concentrating on the landscape; her subjects range from the wild winter storm to the thrum of life in the field-edges above the cliff tops. Eardley drew exclusively and was technically innovative, pressing seeds and stems into the impasto if her oils and often using newspaper as collage, making powerful physical works.
Despite her progressive illness, Eardley kept painting as long as she could, moving to a more domestic subject matter when she could no longer go outside. In Jar of Summer Flowers, Eardley gathered wildflowers and grasses from the field edges to make what would become her final subject. The work acts as a final beacon of light, signifying her defiance in the face of adversity and unerring instinct for her subject: honest, direct and moving. It is one of a group made in the summer of 1963 before she was admitted to hospital in Killearn, near Stirling, where she died on 16th August.
The Scottish art world in the 1950s and 60s was a macho place, dominated by male artists and teachers and, in this context, Eardley remained an outsider – a young artist whose work was unconventional, bold and expressive, a painter who just happened to be a gay English woman. However, she did achieve much success, including being one of the first women to be made a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, not least because of the advocacy of The Scottish Gallery. Today we can recognise that nothing has dated her, the work is as direct and powerful as it was in the fifties.
Anne Morrison-Hudson, Eardley’s niece, said, "This centenary year is evolving into a wonderful celebration of Joan Eardley’s artistic legacy with events happening across Scotland. These have been challenging times to plan such an ambitious exhibition but as usual The Scottish Gallery has risen to the task. The long and productive association between the artist, family and gallery remain as important as ever in maintaining and promoting the name of Joan Eardley here in Scotland and further afield."
The Joan Eardley Exhibition at The Scottish Gallery, Dundas Street, Edinburgh runs from Friday 30th July – Saturday 28th August 2021
Other associated events at the Gallery include:
Joan Eardley Exhibition Tour with Tommy Zyw - Tuesday 3rd August 2021, 11am
James Naughtie on Joan Eardley - Thursday 5th August, 6pm
Joan Eardley Exhibition Tour with Christina Jansen - Wednesday 11th August 2021, 11am
Joan Eardley | Centenary in Context - Thursday 12th August 2021, 5pm
Anne Morrison-Hudson in conversation with Guy Peploe - Saturday 14th August, 11am
Patrick Elliott In Conversation - Tuesday 17th August, 11am
Joan Eardley Lecture with Guy Peploe - Wednesday 18th August, 6pm
Find out more about these events, and the exhibition itself, on The Scottish Gallery website.
Images - Top: Joan Eardley in Catterline, 1961. Photograph by Audrey Walker
Girl and Chalked Wall, gouache, 46.5 x 28.5 cm, courtesy of artist's estate
Catterline Landscape, c.1962, oil on board, 94 x 104 cm
Jar of Summer Flowers, 1963, oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm