'Joan Eardley: Land & Sea - A Life in Catterline' by Patrick Elliott

Joan Eardley: Land & Sea - A Life in Catterline is out now. Author Patrick Elliott reflects on the research process of this beautifully illustrated book, which was published to celebrate the artist's centenary.

It’s logical that an exhibition and the accompanying catalogue should appear at the same time. But it’s also a bit annoying if you are responsible for them. What always happens, when you organise an exhibition, is that you learn new and interesting things once it has opened. You have special previews and talks where you pick up titbits of information. People come forward who you really wish you’d met before. 

So it was that a few months before our exhibition Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, opened at Modern Two in 2016, I attended a dry run of a play about Eardley. The actors read from their scripts and the audience was invited to comment. A man a few seats behind me pointed out, very politely, that one or two things that had been said about the fishing village of Catterline, where Eardley had lived, weren’t quite right. Everyone turned round. Who was he? How did he know? He knew because he had been there. He was born in the village and had even gone to the local train station with his dad to pick Joan Eardley up when she first settled in the village in 1952.  

Ron Stephen was a mine of information and he was able to add immeasurably to our knowledge of the village. To visit Catterline in his company is to travel back in time. A picture showing the boats on the shore has to have been painted on the west side of the pier. In retrospect it’s obvious: that’s where the boat winch is – in fact it is still there. If the boat is green, it’ll be the Mascot. If you want to know where the phone box was or where they got their drinking water, or where they bought sweets, or what Eardley’s neighbours were like, you ask Ron. He is a walking, talking Catterline Wikipedia.

But a lot of what he told me couldn’t be fitted into the format of the Sense of Place show and catalogue. The idea of doing another book, specifically about Catterline, to mark Eardley’s centenary in 2021, took hold. Ron and I have exchanged calls and emails ever since. 

Joan Eardley Boats on the Shore About 1963 © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved. DACS, London 2023

Another memorable encounter was with Jonathan Stansfeld, who has since died. He ran all the salmon fishing stations along that part of the coast from the late 1950s onwards. The nets you see in Eardley’s paintings were his nets. He knew all the fishermen in the village, knew exactly where and when they fished, knew what their nets were made of, and who made them, and even how much each fisherman was paid (he had his original logbooks).

Other interviewees included the artist James Morrison, who has also since passed away. He was Eardley’s neighbour and bought his house from her. And the first headmaster of the local primary school, Mr Simpson, who is still going strong at 100. He expected me to be disappointed when he explained that he and Eardley, neighbours for four years, were on friendly nodding terms but never held a proper conversation. Actually, no, this is gold. It shows why Eardley wanted to live there. The villagers were friendly but not intrusive or judgmental. She could get on with her work and her life.

Audrey Walker, Joan Eardley, Catterline, 1961.

But the biggest revelation was a box. A box containing hundreds of letters between Eardley and her lover, the artist Lil Neilson, covering a period of about nine months, just before Eardley’s death in August 1963. In the letters Eardley rarely mentions her art, but instead talks of her love for Neilson and the routine of her daily life.  

We find out what she ate, what books she read, what music she liked, what she watched on television (Juke Box Jury and Monitor), how she suffered from a slipped disc, which hampered her desire to learn to drive. Her friendship with Mrs Taylor, who lived a few doors away and became a kind of mother figure, was important. Eardley is as good with words as she is with paint. Her account of her London dealer coming up to Catterline, dressed to the nines and dodging the goat poo, is hilarious. 

The point of the book is to embed Eardley in the village and in its community. The hope is to show why she wanted to live there, and how it helped her produce some of the best twentieth-century paintings you’ll see anywhere.

By Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. 

30 September 2021