Who’s That Boy? Sitting for Joan Eardley

Marking what would be Joan Eardley’s 101st birthday, on 18 May 2022, Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland, tracked down the subject of her painting Boy’s Head: A Glasgow Boy

Joan Eardley (1921-1963) died tragically young, aged just forty-two. The National Galleries of Scotland has an exceptional collection of her work – but one little painting of a red-haired boy remained something of a mystery. It carries a bald, descriptive title: Boy’s Head: A Glasgow Boy. Who is he? 

Joan Eardley Boy’s Head: A Glasgow Boy About 1953 - 1954 © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved. DACS, London 2023

We knew he was one of the Samsons, a Catholic family of twelve children who lived in the Townhead area of Glasgow, near Eardley’s studio, and who often posed for her. But we’ve only recently tracked him down, in Melbourne, Australia. 

Born on Christmas day 1944, Jim Samson was the third child in the family. The Samsons lived at 115 Rottenrow, in the heart of Townhead. It’s in the centre of Glasgow, just a few minutes’ walk from the City Chambers, but in the 1950s the Victorian tenements constituted one of the most decrepit and overcrowded slums in Europe.

Joan Eardley’s Studio, on the top floor, 204 St James’s Street, on the corner of McAslin Street. She rented the studio, a former photographer’s studio, from 1953-63.

They lived in the second-floor flat. It had two bedrooms and a living room. The boys slept in one bedroom (they had army greatcoats for blankets), the girls in the other. Their parents, Andrew and Jean, slept in a niche in the living room. The babies slept in the bottom drawer of a sideboard. There was a shared toilet on the stairwell. ‘When that was blocked it would flow down the stairs’, Jim recalls. There were public baths at the end of the road where he might have to step into tepid bathwater already used by half a dozen other children.

Andrew Samson, the eldest child (born in 1942) met Eardley first. In about 1953, he saw her painting in the street, with her canvas, easel and the pram she used to ferry her equipment. The sight piqued his curiosity and they got into conversation. She asked him to pose for her and they went to her studio, a short walk away, on St James’s Street, above a scrap merchant’s shop. The chief appeal for Andrew was that it was warm, there were syrup and cheese sandwiches on offer, and he went home with sixpence. Not surprisingly, James, aged about eight, volunteered his services. What was it like to pose for Joan Eardley? Jim provides some insight.

‘You would go up the stairs to the top floor and then walk in the door and down a couple of steps. Along the left side were all sorts of canvases and things and there was a pot belly stove and a bed. It was always nice and warm in there. I confess that partly why we went there was that she would give you a sandwich or something. That was a big thing in Townhead.’ 

Jim had a tough childhood marked by deep poverty. His father was often unemployed and there was barely enough to eat: an evening meal often consisted of bread and dripping. No wonder they liked posing for Eardley where a sandwich, sweets and a few pennies were on offer. Our painting shows him at the age of about eight or nine, around 1953 or 1954.

And what was Eardley like?

‘She was absolutely beautiful. I used to see her walking around the streets with her canvas, easel and paints. She walked slowly. She was always in woolly jumpers and corduroy trousers. She was very gentle, very softly spoken and she spoke slowly with an English accent. At that time, you never heard an English accent in Townhead. She was very kind - we weren’t used to that. And she was big; entirely different from the other women, who wore shawls, and scarves and carried children. She had thick black hair. She was so out of place, so unusual. She’d come looking for us if she had started a painting and wanted to finish it.’

Photograph by Oscar Marzaroli: Joan Eardley seated with a small boy, sketching
Eardley in her studio at 204 St James Road, around the early 1960s

He fared badly at school. At the age of about nine he was caught stealing something – he cannot remember what – and was locked up in a police cell. He ended up in court. ‘I remember standing in that court. There was a judge in a wig, a Salvation Army woman and a man in a suit.’ At the age of ten he was sent to an Approved School for young offenders. 

His troubles had, it turned out, barely begun. The two schools he was sent to, St Mungo’s in Mauchline, Ayrshire, and later St Joseph’s, in Tranent, East Lothian, were residential Approved Schools run by a Catholic Order, the De La Salle Brothers. Both schools were added to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry’s investigations in March 2020. In conversation, Jim reels off a list of the awful things that happened to him. ‘There was nobody to talk to. Nobody would believe you.’ It’s only recently that he has begun to discuss this period of his life.  

Jim Samson with the thoroughbred 'Hellofadeal'. Jim is part of a syndicate that has a part-share in the horse: ‘I own the tail!’ (Photograph by Leo Panjari, 2021)

At the age of sixteen, he joined the Merchant Navy and spent ten happy years travelling the world. Haunted by his past in Scotland, he decided to settle on the other side of the world. In 1971 he moved to Melbourne in Australia.

At first, he worked as a hospital orderly at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. He then trained to become a urology nurse and spent the rest of his career working at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

He retired just two years ago. Positive, friendly and keen to talk, he retains a soft Glasgow accent. He remains in close contact with his brothers and sisters and is looking forward to a trip ‘home’ in the summer.

Our free exhibition Joan Eardley & Catterline is on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) until Sunday 21 August, 2022.

By Patrick Elliott, 18 May 2022