In 1951 an abstract painting by William Gear won top prize in a major Festival of Britain competition and the letters pages of the broadsheets blazed with outrage. Abstract art before the war was cool and manageable, the butt of jokes in Punch, but nothing worse. Post-war it was wild, anarchic and threatening and – worse still – it came from the Continent (distant premonitions of Brexit perhaps?)
Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place *****
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Although it was Scots like Gear, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi who led a new, radical approach in the south, even there it was a challenge. Back home in Scotland, it was much more difficult. This was a recipe for a very timid kind of modernism and that mostly is what we got. Joan Eardley was not intimidated, however. Her art blazed with courage as brightly as the letters pages had blazed with indignation at Gear’s success. And Eardley went further. She did not simply follow fashion to become a provincial practitioner of a style borrowed from far away. Through exhibitions at the SSA and the RSA, the new, abstract and expressionist style of painting coming out of Paris was familiar in Scotland. (American painting came here later.) In 1958 an exhibition in the RSA of the Moltzau Collection was the biggest display of abstract art ever seen in Scotland. Eardley learnt from what she saw and incorporated its freedoms into a style that was powerful and entirely her own and the title of the new show at the Gallery of Modern Art, Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, identifies – as the exhibition brilliantly illuminates – a key aspect of her originality. However free and apparently abstract she became, her art remained firmly rooted in the specific characteristics of the people and places around her. It was not that she timidly clung to the shore, rather than risk the wild waters of abstract expressionism. She struck out across them, but on a course that was her own. Although she was only 42 when she died, the show also demonstrates how rapidly her art developed, absorbing and digesting new influences all the time, but keeping its own unique trajectory.
Two locations were her principal inspiration: Townhead in Glasgow and Catterline on the Angus coast. The exhibition focuses on these places. Maps show how in both she worked around her base and rarely strayed more than a few hundred yards from home to find her subjects. She first took a studio in Cochrane Street in Glasgow’s Townhead in 1949. (She graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1943, but had returned to do a post-diploma year in 1947-8, followed by a travelling scholarship in 1949.) In 1953, she moved a few hundred yards to a top-floor studio on St James’s Road. (It is a measure of the antiquity of this slum district that this is Glasgow’s Rue St Jacques, the beginning of the medieval pilgrims’ long road to Santiago de Compostela.) She first went to Catterline in 1950 and worked there regularly from 1952 till her death in 1963. At first she borrowed a former Customs and Excise lookout. Then she rented one of the row of fishermen’s cottages on top of the cliff looking down to the harbour and finally bought one of them in 1959.
The show begins with paintings like A Stove and A Glasgow Lodging done in her studio in Glasgow. Very sombre, they suggest London “Kitchen Sink” painters like John Bratby, but are much bolder and more simplified. She started to paint life in the streets around her studio very early too. The tall vertical composition and flat, nearly abstract blocks of colour of Back Street Bookie also show her already absorbing the lessons of School of Paris painters like Nicholas de Staël. Though the subjects are very different, her paintings of Catterline are composed of the same simplified blocks of colour. Surprisingly, the sea does not feature in her Catterline paintings at first. In Cornfield at Night, for instance, or Sarah’s Cottage, both long, horizontal pictures, it seems to be the abstract rhythms of the roofline and of the low rectangles of the cottages that inspire her. In the former picture, too, the patterned geometry of corn stooks rendered in brilliant red shows how much she was thinking about what she could learn from abstract painting.
Two illuminating features of this show are its exploration of her use of photographs and the way the pictures are hung to illustrate a sequence of ideas in her response to a single motif, often starting with a photograph. The sloping line of the Catterline cottages, for instance, is caught in a photo, in several drawings and in a series of paintings culminating in one of her last and finest paintings of the place, Catterline in Winter. In this last image, the slope has steepened giddily to become the diagonal bisecting a square canvas with a white triangle of a snowy path and fence beneath and a matching triangle of flat, grey sky above. The white disk of a winter sun seems to radiate neither light nor warmth. Elsewhere, two paintings looking in the opposite direction and in different seasons show that to paint them she had stood on either side of the same fence just behind her house.
Photos, both her own and those by her friend Audrey Walker, also have an important place in her work in Townhead. Those of children playing in the street are simply enchanting and she used them directly, too. The superb Children at a Tenement Window depends directly on photographs, for instance. Even some of the graffiti on the wall in this and several related pictures also appears in the photos. Painting sweet children is usually fatal for an artist, but Eardley gets around this trap in an inspired way. She observes the children closely, both in her drawings and paintings, and her sympathy with them is manifest, but she gives them faces like the tragic masks of Greek theatre. Players in their own living dramas, their dignity supersedes their sweetness.
The climax of Eardley’s career came painting the sea at Catterline in its winter fury: the little harbour with waves crashing over its pier, looking down from outside her front door, or down on the beach, salmon nets drying in the wind, or meeting the winter storms face to face. The latter pictures especially capture all of the sea’s wild energy. By this time, a series of exhibitions in London, notably one devoted to Jackson Pollock in 1958, had made the work of the American Abstract Expressionists more familiar. Pollock’s example may have encouraged the new, greater freedom of these paintings. Nevertheless, they are neither random nor abstract but are located precisely in what she has seen. I had the privilege of looking at these sea paintings with Ron Stephen who was a child in Catterline when they were painted. He identified a figure in Boats on the Shore, for instance, as “probably John Watt”, when I had not even noticed there was a figure there, lost in the swirls of paint. The wall of water in the wave that had always puzzled me was, he pointed out, not an imagined tsunami, but the curtain of falling water as a wave breaks clean over the pier. There have been very few painters since Turner whose work could support such close interrogation from an eye witness and yet so convincingly also touch the abstract and sublime. n
*Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 21 May