Brush with greatness

MARGOT SANDEMAN'S FIRST memory of Joan Eardley is of a chic young woman climbing the steps of Glasgow School of Art in January 1940. "We were told there was a new student coming after Christmas from London," says Sandeman, who was in her first year. "I remember seeing her coming in. She was wearing a kilt and had permed hair."

But the 19-year-old Eardley quickly relaxed into the ways of the art school and was soon attracting attention with her remarkable painting. "We were very shy of each other for about a year," Sandeman remembers. "But Joan's mother and my mother enticed us to do a Red Cross course together. We started having to bandage each other, that broke the ice! After that we became tremendously great friends."

Sandeman, now 85, became Eardley's best friend and remained an important support to the artist until her death in 1963. While Eardley's career was cut tragically short, Sandeman's has had a remarkable long-evity. A longtime collaborator with Ian Hamilton Finlay, she had a solo show at Edinburgh's Talbot Rice Gallery last year, from which a painting was purchased by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, affirming her status as an important artist.

Meanwhile, this month the National Galleries of Scotland will mount a major show of Eardley's work, the first in nearly 20 years, which will transfer to the Fleming Gallery in London next year. Sandeman hopes it will bring her friend well-deserved recognition from a new generation of painters.

Eardley and Sandeman's friendship was cemented by painting trips to Arran, where they rented a primitive cottage called the Tabernacle for 1 a month. When Sandeman left Glasgow to become a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, they began a correspondence which would last until Eardley died.

After leaving GSA, Eardley started teacher training at Jordanhill but lasted only one term. "She hated it," says Sandeman. "She became a joiner's apprentice with a boat builder. She learned quite a lot of joinery, I have got a stool and a table that she made."

Soon afterwards, Eardley secured her first studio, a fourth floor room in Cochrane Street, but it was Sandeman who first painted the Glasgow street urchins for which Eardley would become famous. "I had a painting which was in the SSA [Society of Scottish Artists], two children playing marbles on the pavement, it was reviewed quite well. It set off Joan on that theme. She started doing it a lot better than me, of course".

The work of both women stood out to The Scotsman art critic, reviewing an SSA exhibition in the 1940s: "Miss Joan Eardley and Miss Margot Sand-eman more than maintain the exciting promise of their first appearances ... Both are quite fearless and convinced exponents of highly individual outlooks."

Eardley moved to a studio above a scrap metal store in St James Road, Townhead, and often took to the streets to sketch the children from the surrounding tenements, pushing her easel in an old pram, accompanied by her friend Angus Neil.

"She was a very compassionate person," Sandeman says. "Before she went to art school she was going to be a doctor. I think she would have been a very good doctor, she was very good with people, very kind, very intelligent."

But Eardley was also troubled by melancholy. "She used to get fearful fits of depression," Sandeman says. "She used to come to see me in my family house on the way to the studio and sit and weep. She was physically very strong; it amazed me, in a way, that she could have this very delicate side."

By the time Eardley discovered the north-east village of Catterline, Sandeman was married, to art teacher and potter James Robson. While they were setting up home together in Glasgow, Eardley was living in a tumbledown cottage with no electricity or hot water. Photographs by her friend Audrey Walker show her painting on the beach in the teeth of a storm, using rocks to weigh down her easel, or tying a canvas to the back of her trusty motor scooter for support.

The landscape of Catterline brought her into a more experimental, expressionist painting style. Sandeman says: "She was able to translate things visually into paint. A lot of painters don't work on the spot, they take sketches back and work in the studio, but Joan had this amazing ability to translate paint on the spot on to the canvas."

Sandeman visited Eardley in Catterline several times. "I used to go up and see her there, but when my two boys were young it was more difficult. I remember she had mice in the cottage," she shudders. "At dusk they could come out and run about, jumping in and out of the coal bucket. She didn't mind it at all!"

She is still struck by Eardley's dedication, her single-minded desire to do nothing but paint. "She was a hard worker, she really taught me to be serious. I had the family, but I found that very suitable. It helped me to have the distraction of the family and yet paint. Joan was really single-minded, but she was lonely. She had quite a hard life, when I think of it, emotionally she was quite unhappy, [perhaps that's why] she embraced doing these stormy seascapes."

By the early 1960s, Eardley's achievements were being increasingly recognised. She had a one-woman show at the Scottish Gallery in 1961, and a very successful show in London the summer before she died. That same year she was elected a full member of the RSA.

Her death in August 1963 was a shock to all but her closest friends. Sandeman remembers the last time she saw Eardley, in late May when they went to watch a play at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. "She saw me on to a bus afterwards, she was going to the studio (in Townhead). I remember sitting on the bus facing the door, waving and waving."

At that time Eardley was complaining of persistent headaches. She had told close friends she had seen a homeopathic doctor a few months previously about a lump in her breast but had been told not to worry. Sandeman now suspects Eardley had a brain tumour and already knew she was mortally ill. "When we were on the train she said, 'By the way, if ever I'm not here, don't feel you've got to look after Angus [Neil]'. I always thought it was strange that she said that."

In the last few weeks of her life, she was cared for at Catterline by the painter Lil Neilson and her partner Rita Guenigault, spending her final days in Killearn Hospital north of Glasgow. Sandeman was staying with her husband and children in their cottage on Arran when she heard that Eardley was dying.

"There was a public phone down the road, I would go down each night and Pat [Eardley's sister] would ring me to tell me how Joan was. One night she said 'I think you should come quickly, she is really very ill'. I got the boat next morning, but she had died by the time I got to the hospital." Her ashes were scattered on the beach at Catterline.

With hindsight, Sandeman sees the urgency with which Eardley approached her work in a new light. "One of the things that did amaze me was when we were staying in the Tabernacle in our early twenties, she was up as soon as it was light, and would work all day. About three or four hours' concentration was enough for me, it was a bit irritating. Once I did say 'What's all the rush?' She said, 'I don't feel as though there's enough time'. It's almost as if she knew."

• Joan Eardley is at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 6 November until 13 January.

Eardley: assessing the legacy

Fiona Pearson, senior curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

"In British art in the post-war period there were two camps, realism and abstraction. Most people went on to one side or the other, but Joan Eardley worked in both - realistic studies of children, and landscapes that tended to abstraction. Because she had a foot in both camps, she wasn't championed by one cause or another.

"Because she painted Glasgow tenement life, and the landscapes and seascapes of the north-east, she has a big place in people's hearts in Scotland, but she is much less well-known in England.

"She was interested in humanity, life force, whether in the children in Glasgow, the old people in Italy, of the life force in nature and the landscape. She was a painter's painter - she was great with the use of paint."

John Lowrie Morrison, artist

"When I was about 11 I read an article about Eardley in a magazine and decided I wanted to paint. I've always kept it.

"At the end of the 1960s I found her studio in Townhead when they were pulling the tenements down. The door wasn't locked and there were drawings on the floor. I was going to take them away, but I was too honest. When I went back, the building was rubble.

"I think Eardley is the most significant landscape painter of the 20th century in Scotland. She has never had the recognition she deserves. She recorded what was round about her - whether it was the landscape of Catterline or the children of Townhead. She records what's there and that inspired me - that's what I do."

Guy Peploe, managing director, the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

"There was a desperate urgency to her work. It was almost as if she knew that she was not going to be the grand old lady of Scottish art. Today, her work is enormously sought-after. Her two distinctive areas of subject matter - Glasgow and Catterline - each have their adherents. Her prices have tripled in the last three years. I think the NGS show will be enormously popular - and a revelation to some people.

"She is in important English collections, but compared to the less interesting English artists; she is underrated. She is one of very few Scottish artists you can make a genuine case for as a major international figure."

• The Scottish Gallery will hold a Joan Eardley show in December.