Joan Eardley was only 42 when she died in 1963. She was born in England but her life was in Scotland. Two Scottish subjects dominate the current exhibition of her work (at the National Gallery of Scotland until 13 January): paintings of children from the tenements near her Glasgow studio, and of the land and sea around Catterline, a village on the east coast, south of Aberdeen, which she first visited in 1951 and where she later owned a cottage (one of the row in the picture on this page).

The children in the paintings, some seen singly, others in groups where they tug, touch, nudge, clasp one another, push prams, carry toddlers, play cards or queue for the cinema, can also be seen in photographs taken by Eardley herself and by her friend Audrey Walker. The photographs give the look of one corner of postwar Britain in documentary black and white. Eardley’s paintings give it in colour; bright patches of clothing show up against dark, chalk-scrawled walls. The turn of a head, the angle of a leg, or the loop of a skipping rope add movement. English painters like John Bratby and Jack Smith were drawing on similar subjects with a not dissimilar, calculated clumsiness that trades crispness for directness, as though seeking to match the thing drawn in the accent of the drawing.

‘Catterline in Winter’, c.1963.

‘Catterline in Winter’, c.1963.

Her seascapes and landscapes suggest other comparisons: Ivon Hitchens painted landscapes in which flowing patterns of colour can still be read as trees and water; de Kooning in America made pictures in which the bones of an unseen landscape seem to direct the reading of a field of abstract marks. But such mapping of similarity and influence shows little more than that Eardley’s way of drawing and painting was, as you would expect, of its time. More interesting connections are suggested by the fact that she took strength from clearly delimited material. Her concentration on a chosen bit of coast brings her closer to Frank Auerbach, who has concentrated on Primrose Hill, than to painters who made brush marks more like her own. When you think about what kind of artist she was, putting her child-invaded studio and Lucian Freud’s naked-friend-and-acquaintance-laden chairs and couches side by side suggests a common attitude to work that has nothing to do with style and not much to do with subject. (Eardley did paint one male nude: it shows a friend, Angus Neil, lying on a couch, very skinny, painted in slabs of brown and buff. In 1955, it seems, a woman painting a male nude was worth prurient attention from the press. A newspaper printed her address and she was bothered by offers to pose. She didn’t do another nude.) She described her relation to her child models in an interview recorded towards the end of her life. Of one family, the Samsons, she said:

I have been painting them for seven years … there are a large number of them, 12, so I’ve always had a certain number of children from this family of any age I choose … some children I don’t like … some interest me much more as characters … these ones I encourage … they don’t need much … they don’t pose – they come up and say will you paint me?

Sometimes Catterline was equally demanding. She commuted between the village and Glasgow and, according to Fiona Pearson’s essay in the catalogue, ‘a phone call from a neighbour warning of approaching storms would send Eardley racing north again.’ While 19th-century tourists and topographers without cameras tended to search out dramatic prospects, the peaks of landscape painting have, more often, been scaled by those who stuck with what was within walking distance – as often as not the landscape they had grown up with. Thus Constable’s Suffolk, Cézanne’s Provence and Eardley’s Catterline. (Even Turner, a great exception, might at a pinch be reckoned to have a single subject: changing light and weather.)

In her land and seascapes Eardley knifes, drips and brushes paint with broad gestures which (to pick on another comparison of limited significance) resemble those of Tachiste contemporaries. Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages were both painters whose work she could have seen exhibited in Scotland. More to the point are the abstracted landscapes of Nicolas de Staël and Soutine’s crumpled, wavy transformations of Céret (he was another painter with a single landscape territory). For all their smudgy, flowing deliciousness, her marks, even in the most abstract of her pictures, do describe things; their relation to one another is more than formal. The sea pictures are remarkable anatomies of shore waves. The Wave of 1961 shows a wall of white water thrown forward as the wave overtops itself. In The Sea of 1959 it is possible to guess at interleaving breakers. In Foam and Blue Sky of 1962 froth from a broken wave reaches high; the horizon, which cuts across the other pictures, is here obscured by a broken flurry that runs towards blue and brown at the foot of the picture. Rocks? Sand? Water? It’s hard to tell. It is a child’s view of the force he will run up the beach to escape.

‘Provincial’ is a condescending word (less so perhaps when one attaches ‘vigour’ to it, as I would here), but I can’t think of a better one to describe a particular kind of distance from the traffic of styles and reputations that Eardley exemplifies. It is not that she was unknown outside Scotland or ignorant of what was going on in the world. She made regular trips to London to see exhibitions, and her own at Roland, Browse and Delbanco in the last year of her life was a critical and financial success. But the self-confidence that carried her forward, undistracted by the strong international currents that broke the flow of other careers, seems to have been sustained by attachment to her native place.

Juxtapositions are another pleasure of work seen in a provincial context. For example, Eardley studied briefly with James Cowie, whose painting of two schoolgirls (more Jean Brodie than Balthus, but with a bit of both) is tightly composed and painted – the opposite in handling and drawing of Eardley’s child portraits. It is not surprising that she argued with him. But to think of the contrast between them as a commentary on aspects of Scottish life, as expressions of different kinds of Scottish character even, is just about allowable. International comparisons can’t offer the pleasure of that kind of speculation.

And then there are backward looks – for example, to William McTaggart’s Scottish seascapes from around the turn of the last century. Paint whipped up like egg white into waves and clouds, paintings which would be Impressionist if subject matter – folk by the shore; the immigrant ship on the horizon (for all that those elements, like the waves themselves, emerge only gradually from the skeins of paint) – did not tie them to his earlier conventional and sentimental pictures of children by the shore. Look at these pictures with Eardley’s in mind and you notice the dabs of white which McTaggart also used to mark departing sails. It is not a question of influence or borrowing, more the knowledge that a single landscape has come to you by way of two minds, and the feeling that what is congruent and what is not tells you things that each by itself would not.

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