Art review: Joan Eardley, Edinburgh

Stonehaven Harbour, from the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish Gallery. Picture: Contributed
Stonehaven Harbour, from the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish Gallery. Picture: Contributed
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A NEW exhibition shows how Scottish artist Joan Eardley’s fine art wasn’t fine at all, but rather rough and ready, untouched by bourgeois sensibilities.

Joan Eardley

Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

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JOAN EARDLEY was born in Sussex in 1921 and moved to London as a child. Her father took his own life in 1929, but the family had some private means. Later the artist herself always had a small income which enabled her to avoid having to teach for a living. Her mother was Scottish and in 1940 took her family back to Scotland to escape the Blitz. Eardley had begun to study art in London and so in 1940 enrolled in Glasgow School of Art. For six months in 1946, she also studied at Hospitalfield in Arbroath with James Cowie, who she didn’t like but from whom she learnt a great deal. Cowie’s drawings of children, for instance, anticipate her own in their emphatic rejection of any ideal vision of childhood and corresponding respect for a child’s individuality. There are beautiful examples of her informal child portraits in the current exhibition at the Scottish Gallery which also marks the publication of a new book on the artist by Christopher Andreae.

Eardley’s training was extended, her subsequent career all too brief. She died in 1963 aged just 42, but her output was formidable and her work constantly original. Glasgow in the war years was a lively place artistically. There were refugees like Jankel Adler and Josef Herman with experience of continental modernism. Herman, a communist, also promoted a radical, left-wing aesthetic which certainly touched the young Eardley. J D Fergusson, surrounded by a circle of young artists, by force of circumstance mostly women, also kept the flag flying for a truly modern Scottish art. From those early days in Glasgow, Eardley too flew that flag, for whatever her origins, she became very much part of Scottish art. She absorbed ideas from contemporaries like Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde and in turn influenced the younger generation, both in her lifetime and since.

The exhibition at the Scottish Gallery covers most of Eardley’s career. It does so principally through drawings, but also includes a number of significant paintings and larger works. It is least representative of her early years, but this is probably inevitable. She was always careless and as her work was less valued by others when she was young, no doubt less of it survives. Even in Andreae’s book there are only a few illustrations of works from before 1950. It reflects a limitation of the book that such as there are, however, are difficult to identify. It is well illustrated and the quality of the reproductions is good, but the illustrations are organised according to their mention in the text and this is pretty random for it is not a consistent narrative. Instead it is divided into chapters under whimsical headings like “Days in the Country”, “An Epistolary Interlude”, or “About Angus” (Angus was Angus Neil, a friend and to an extent a dependent of the artist), or more simply “Genre”, or “Portrait Painting”. This means the illustrations don’t make a separate pictorial narrative as one might expect them to do.

The first really striking works that Eardley produced were the result of a journey she made in 1948-9 on a travelling scholarship to Italy. Before that, however, she had painted in the streets of Glasgow and shipyards of the Clyde pictures that reflect the left-wing aesthetic of Josef Herman and also of Tom MacDonald and Bet Low with whose art Eardley’s has much in common at this time. Andreae describes how when she was in Italy, Eardley received left-wing reviews in the post from Glasgow. He doesn’t pursue the question this raises beyond later saying that Eardley denied there was any political intention in her paintings of Glasgow children. No doubt that was true, but it begs the question of how politics had shaped her interest in such subject matter in the first place.

The spirit of her early Glasgow work continued in strongly drawn Italian scenes and people. The first work in the exhibition that really shows her strength, however, is a drawing of a fishing boat, identified as the Acorn, in Stonehaven Harbour, probably done in 1952 when she first visited the North-east coast that was to become her home. The drawing is splattered with ink. Whether this was by accident or design, the effect is to convey vivid, reckless urgency. Another early drawing of the red-painted end of a Glasgow tenement is done on four sheets of paper laid down roughly, one on the other, as the drawing grew. This kind of casual, almost haphazard treatment was part of the politically coloured aesthetic that she had learnt in Glasgow: fine art should not be fine at all. It should rather be rough and ready, untouched by bourgeois refinement. It was an attitude that anticipated the later Italian Arte Povera movement. For Eardley personal neglect was perhaps part of it, too, reflecting the feeling that art to be valid should be a struggle against adversity and in the end, tragically, it was neglect of an illness that killed Eardley so prematurely.

In her art this need for struggle was only creative, however, and it kept its vivid spontaneity throughout her short life. At Catterline, looking inland she painted romantic landscapes of fields and cornstacks, but when she turned towards the sea the accounts she gave in her letters are all about the physical struggle with wind and weather and that physicality is miraculously carried over into her seascapes. There is a superb example in the exhibition. In the crest of a breaking wave, great chunks of paint are clearly scraped straight off her palette and banged onto the canvas with little regard for what actual colours it incorporated. She seems to have found this same sense of wild freedom in the graffiti that graced Glasgow’s walls and which she incorporated into late paintings in her Children and Chalked Walls series of which there is also a superb example here.

Andreae’s book is actually the third biography of Eardley to which must also be added Fiona Pearson’s admirable catalogue of the retrospective in 2007. Its main strength is in its evocation of Eardley’s personality and her relationships with those close to her. It includes, for instance, the text of love letters that she wrote to Audrey Walker. That she had relationships with women is not new, but these letters do offer a new insight even if it is a little uncomfortable reading them. The book’s main weakness is that in focusing so closely on Eardley herself, it tends to confuse the artist with her art. The author too often takes her opinions of her work at face value. Artists are naturally important witnesses to their own work, but they are also notoriously unreliable. The only really reliable witness is the work itself which Andreae does not analyse closely enough. He is also clearly uncomfortable with the idea that Eardley was a Scottish artist and seems to think it diminishes her. In the catalogue to the Scottish Gallery exhibition, for instance, he writes that with her there is no need “for such qualifiers (even if they are not intentionally demeaning) as ‘Scottish’, ‘twentieth century’ and ‘woman artist.’” It is really rather startling that in his view “Scottish” or “woman artist” ever could be demeaning epithets. It follows, however, that his last chapter is headed “Real or Abstract, Scottish or Universal?” The first question is easily settled. Eardley was an artist who learnt much from contemporary abstract art, mostly modern French painting, but latterly also from American. She resolutely held out against the fashion for abstraction, however, to insist, in a way that was rather typically Scottish, that her art was about her relationship to the visible and tangible world around her. The second question however, “was she Scottish or universal?”, suggests that for Andreae these are mutually exclusive. They are not. She was both Scottish and universal and so in very good company too.

• Joan Eardley by Christopher Andreae is published by Lund Humphries in April. Joan Eardley is at the Scottish Gallery until 27 April

BEST IN SHOW

Throughout her life, Joan Eardley painted in the streets of Glasgow, where she treated the children easily and naturally. In her early work they are strongly individualised, but in the last years of her life they become more generic as though part of their environment. It was an environment that they had created, too, by apparently covering every available surface with graffiti. So she painted children together with their graffiti in a series of pictures generally titled Children and Chalked Wall. In the exhibition a beautiful example is in mixed media, combining collage with gouache in brilliant blue, black and red and the white of chalk drawings on the wall, which morph into the children themselves as though coming to life.