“One of the pre-eminent British artists of the 20th Century”
Joan Eardley’s career lasted barely fifteen years: she died in 1963, aged just forty-two. During that time she concentrated on two very different themes: the extraordinarily candid paintings of children in the Townhead area of Glasgow; and paintings of the fishing village of Catterline, just south of Aberdeen, with its leaden skies and wild sea. These two contrasting strands are the focus of this exhibition, which looks in detail at her working process. It draws on a remarkable archive of sketches and photographs which remains largely unknown and unpublished.
The exhibition also features many loans from public and private collections, allowing the viewer to trace specific developments between the photographs, the drawings and the finished paintings.
Image: Joan Eardley, Children and Chalked Wall 2, 1963
Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016
About the exhibition
The exhibition focuses on two of Eardley’s favourite locations: Townhead in central Glasgow, an area of crumbling, densely populated tenements which was almost completely bulldozed in the 1960s; and the fishing village of Catterline, just south of Aberdeen, which she first visited in 1950. They might look like polar opposites - urban versus rural - but they had much in common. Eardley was drawn to poor, working communities, where she found life at its richest. She loved the little streets in and around Rottenrow in Townhead, full of children playing with broken toys and reading comics.
Catterline had a parallel sort of life – instead of over-population, the problem was under-population. The young had left for the bigger fishing ports. A friend bought a cottage there in 1952 and Eardley used that, on and off, for two years, before renting her own cottage, at no.1 South Row, from 1954. She travelled on the train from Glasgow to Stonehaven, where she kept a motor-scooter, and then drove the 5 or 6 miles south to Catterline. She probably spent a month or two in each place at a time.
Catterline is a village of thirty or so cottages which is still nearly as it was during Eardley’s time there. One surprising thing is that when Eardley first worked in Catterline, she did not paint the sea or landscape. Instead she painted the cottages. It was as if she brought her experience of painting Glasgow tenements with her and felt most at ease painting buildings in Catterline. Most of the early paintings were done near ‘The Watchie’, the cottage where she first stayed, in the north of the village.
A number of the paintings feature the strip of ten cottages – most memorably captured in the fabulous oil painting Catterline in Winter, 1963 – and you can spot her cottage, No.1, at the far left end. It had no electricity or running water. Eardley called it the ‘absolutest and best spot in the village’. You can then recognize the paintings of the side of her cottage, or the beehives kept behind by a neighbour, or the back garden and the view north-west. Most of the paintings of fields were done right behind the cottage. You can even identify certain trees. Evidently, she didn’t feel the need to move much. Like John Constable in East Bergholt, she had all the subjects she needed pretty much on her doorstep.
A second theme explored in the exhibition is to look at her working practice and to see how she went about conceiving the works. In 1987 Eardley’s sister, Pat Black, gave the Gallery an archive of more than 200 sketches and photographs and we’ve conserved and framed about fifty of them, which are now on show for the first time.
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