Joan Eardley

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Joan Eardley
Joan Eardley - Self-portrait.jpg
Self-portrait, 1943
Born Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley
18 May 1921
Warnham, West Sussex, England.
Died 16 August 1963
Awards Sir James Guthrie Prize
Elected Royal Scottish Academy (1963)

Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley (18 May 1921 – 16 August 1963) was a British artist noted for her portraiture of street children in Glasgow and for her landscapes of the fishing village of Catterline and surroundings on the North-East coast of Scotland. One of Scotland's most enduringly popular artists, her career was tragically cut short by breast cancer.[1]


Joan Eardley lived and worked in this cottage in Catterline, Aberdeenshire in the years before her death in 1963.

Joan Eardley was born in Warnham, Sussex, England, where her parents were dairy farmers. Her mother, Irene Morrison, was Scottish. Joan had a sister, Patricia, who was born in 1922 and died in 2013.[2] Their father suffered a mental breakdown during the girls' early childhood, having been wounded in a gas attack during World War I; when Joan was nine he took his own life. Joan's mother then took the two girls to live with her own mother in Blackheath, London. In 1929 an aunt paid for the girls' education at a private school, where Joan's artistic talent was first recognised.[3]

Eardley's Sir James Guthrie prize

Eardley trained at the local art school in Blackheath for a short time, and in 1938 enrolled at Goldsmiths College which she attended for one term. In 1939 Eardley, her mother and her sister moved to Glasgow to live with her mother's relatives in Bearsden.

In 1940 Eardley enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art as a day student where she studied under Hugh Adam Crawford and was influenced by the Scottish Colourists.[4][5] She met painter Margot Sandeman, who became a close friend. In 1943 she was awarded a diploma in drawing and painting, and won the Sir James Guthrie Prize for portraiture. The prize, a biography of Guthrie by Sir James L. Caw and published by Macmillan & Co. of London in 1932, is still in the possession of Eardley's family.

After graduating Eardley trained as a teacher, but she never liked classroom teaching and chose instead to work with a joiner and also went back to London for short time. She continued her studies in 1947 at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath under James Cowie, who influenced her choice of everyday subject matter. A scholarship enabled her to travel to Italy and France for a year in 1948 and 1949, six months in fact. During this time she saw many works by Italian Renaissance artists in particular she admired fresco cycles by Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. She valued these artists' humanity and the sculptural aspects of their work. On her return to Scotland in 1949 she mounted an exhibition of work done in Italy, including a number of striking scenes of peasants, beggars, kids and old women.[3][6]:117

Eardley set up a studio in Glasgow, close to the deprived Townhead area, where she became known for her drawings and paintings of poor city children, often playing in the streets in ragged clothes, the older girls looking after younger siblings. She also drew numerous scenes of the shipyards of Port Glasgow. Eardley had developed a unique style and she soon had a reputation as a highly individual, realistic and humane artist of urban life. She was often to be seen transporting her easel and paints around Glasgow in an old pram.

In the early 1950s while convalescing from mumps Eardley was taken by a friend to visit Catterline, a small fishing village near Stonehaven, then in Kincardineshire (now Aberdeenshire). Her friend Annette Stephen bought her a cottage there and she started to spend part of each year away from Glasgow in Catterline. Eardley bought another more suitable, but still basic cottage there in 1954; it had no electricity, running water or sanitation.[3] At Catterline she produced seascapes, often showing the same view but in different light and weather conditions. She also painted landscapes showing the changing seasons in the fields around the village, her thickly textured paintwork sometimes incorporating real pieces of vegetation.[7] She often worked outdoors and often in poor weather. Eardley became the focus of the "Catterline School" of artists, a group who were increasingly drawn to the village during the 1950s and who included Annette Soper, Angus Neil and Lil Neilson.

In an audio recording Joan Eardley spoke of Catterline: "When I'm painting in the North East, I hardly ever move out of the village (Catterline), I hardly ever move from one spot. I do feel the more you know something, the more you can get out of it. That is the North East. It's just vast ( indistinct word possibly "waste"), vast seas, vast areas of cliff. Well you've just got to paint it."[8]

In 1955 Eardley became an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy and in 1963 she was elected a full member of the academy.[5] The same year she opened an exhibition at the London Museum.


Beggars in Venice, 1949. Oil on canvas, 90.5 by 96 cm. Private collection

Eardley's 1943 Self-portrait was her diploma self-portrait at the Glasgow School of Art. It was her only excursion into formal portraiture and she was awarded the school's Sir James Guthrie Prize for it. Her biographer Christopher Andreae notes it as nevertheless remarkably informal, a precursor to the charcoal studies she made in Italy and these in turn a preparation for her many drawing, pastels and paintings of Glasgow street children.[6]:117[9]

Eardley visited Venice in 1949. During her stay she worked mainly in charcoal and pastel. Beggars in Venice is an example of the few oil paintings she produced at the time. The intense blue reflects the love for Giotto she developed during her trip to Italy. The location is the Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, a large square in Venice. The building depicted is the Scuola Grande di San Marco, built in the fifteenth century as a great philanthropic confraternity. Walter Sickert painted exactly the same view in his The Scuola Grande di San Marco.[10] Eardley portrays the beggars gathered there with the same tenderness and sympathy she was later to bring to bear portraying the lives of the disenfranchised in the tenements of Glasgow.[11][12] The painting realized £169,250 at a Sotheby's London sale on 26 August 2008.[13]

Death and legacy[edit]

Eardley was diagnosed with breast cancer which spread to the brain causing great pain but she did not accept treatment. She was cared for by friends and died at Killearn Hospital in August 1963 at the age of 42. Her ashes were scattered on Catterline beach.[3]

Eardley's work was already highly acclaimed by many in Britain by the time of her death. Since then she has been recognised as an artist of international importance, although not universally. A retrospective exhibition held in Edinburgh in 1988 was hosted by the Talbot Rice Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy, the then director of the National Galleries of Scotland having declined the opportunity to mark the 25th anniversary of her death. A National Galleries of Scotland retrospective was finally held in 2007-8.[3] The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has many of her works,[4] as do the Glasgow Museums, which hold both coastal landscapes such as Catterline Coastal Cottages (c. 1952) and figurative paintings such as Two Children (1963).[14]

According to Dr Janet McKenzie of the National Galleries of Scotland, Eardley's untimely death 'meant that she was never given the stature she deserved. Her work deserves to be compared to Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Lucian Freud.' [3] For Guy Peploe, 'There was a desperate urgency to her work. It was almost as if she knew that she was not going to be the grand lady of Scottish art.'[3] Murdo Macdonald says of Eardley's Catterline seascapes: '[S]he committed herself to understanding the sea more than any other painter since McTaggart in the 1890s. Rather than just responding to the attraction of the coastline, she painted with the perception of a mariner aware that waves are heavy, fast moving lumps of water, as able to kill as to support. In this she reinvigorated a maritime trend in Scottish art...'[15] One of her biographers, Cordelia Oliver, observed that, 'for her a truly successful painting had to go deeper than a mere visual record, no matter how accurate... [H]er success lay in her ability to combine the acute, uncompromising painter's eye with a warm human sympathy and understanding'.[16]


  1. ^ "Joan Eardley". Scottish National Gallery. 
  2. ^ UK BMD Index 1837-2006
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Super User. "Joan Eardley, Studio International". 
  4. ^ a b "Joan Eardley". 
  5. ^ a b "Joan Eardley - Tate". Tate. 
  6. ^ a b Andreae, Christopher (2013). Joan Eardley. Lund Humphries. ISBN 978-1848221147. 
  7. ^ "About Joan Eardley - Eardley Editions". 
  8. ^ BBC's Coast series 5 episode 6, first broadcast August 2010
  9. ^ Joan Eardley, p. 117, at Google Books
  10. ^ Baron, Wendy (2006). Sickert:Paintings and Drawings. Yale University Press. p. 219. 
  11. ^ Fiona Pearson, Scottish Art News, Autumn 2008
  12. ^ "Joan Eardley". Studio International. 
  13. ^ "Beggars in Venice". Sotheby's. 
  14. ^ Sam Maddra, Joanna Meacock and Lisa Pearson, ed. (2013). Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Glasgow Museums. London: The Public Catalogue Foundation. ISBN 978-1-904931-81-2. 
  15. ^ Murdo Macdonald, 'Scottish Art', London: Thames and Hudson, 2000: pp192–3
  16. ^ Cordelia Oliver, 'Joan Eardley, RSA', Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1988: p48

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