Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Joan Eardley at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

There's a new Joan Eardley exhibition opening today at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh.  It's to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death, at the age of only 42, and also the publication of a new book about her and her life.

The book, by Christopher Andreae, has resulted recently in some lurid tabloid-style headlines in the normally reserved Herald newspaper ("Female Artists Love Letters to the Wife of Scots Sheriff" - how's that for a double-whammy of sexism?) taking the 'outing' of Eardley, through its publication of previously unseen letters, as the main thrust of the book.  

Given how the world has moved on in the half century since her death (although not, apparently, the headline writers of the Herald), and how her reputation as a major Scottish artist has quite rightly sky-rocketed in that time, I think its fair to say that no-one really gives a hoot about such 'revelations'.

Eardley is mostly remembered as a landscape painter, whose work was veering towards pure abstraction in an emotional response to the landscape around Catterline in north-east Scotland where she lived in her final years.  

Here's Fishing Nets 1, of 1963, the year she died.  At this point, she would have known she was gravely ill.

It's painted on board, which she would put on an easel outside on the shoreline, painting directly in front of nature in all weathers.  She would use of bits of board, household paint, and the surface would get covered in sand and bits of grass.  That was all part of the 'moment' of creating the painting, giving it an authenticity of place and time.  

The paint is applied in energetic, confident, controlled strokes, with a way that tells you she had seen the motif that she was painting a thousand times and knew it so well that she didn't have to get caught up in an exact representation.  The paint is very sensual, knowing, she is in charge, but there is also a tremendous urgency about it.  It is scored into, drawn on, pattern-making. 

Have a look at the square format.  The fishing net is right at the centre, if you draw diagonals across.  It gives a great dynamicism to the painting, and a monumentality to the central image.  

And the more you look at it, the fishing nets form an almost Christ-like motif.  It has parallels with Peter Lanyon's painting of St Just in Cornwall.  This was an area he had lived in all his life, which he felt passionate about.  It's about the tin-mining stretching out under the sea and the sacrifices the miners made, about the relationship of land and sea.  In the representation of the land there is also that same Christ-like reference.

 Peter Lanyon, St Just (Oil on canvas 1953)

I went to the opening of the Eardley show with my son, and his favourite painting was a tiny landscape of the Bay at Catterline.

Bay at Catterline (Oil on panel, 1958)

whilst mine was a tiny painting of haystacks.

Stacks (Oil on board, 1957)
Eardley is also known for her paintings of Glasgow children who lived in the Townhead area of Glasgow around her studio.  Her favourite models were the Samson children, whom she would draw in pastel on pieces of paper saved from parcel wrappings, or bits of glass paper from Fishers where she also bought her paints (which she ground herself, often at the same time as she was making pieces for the children).  She was very unprecious about the materials she used to draw on and the frames she used, which were often second hand.  She was the original recycler.

I saw this little picture years ago in Cyril Gerber's gallery, where is didn't cost particularly much, and was in a rather ropy frame, if I remember correctly.  I loved the intensity of the colour, but the fact it was constructed out of chopped up bits of paper bothered and annoyed me.

Tenement (1950, chalk on paper collage)

Now it's in a spanky gilded frame and costs many thousands of pounds, but it still annoyed me when I saw it again yesterday.

Also costing many thousands of pounds are images like this.

Pink Jumper (1959, pastel on glass paper)

It's an ordinary sheet of sandpaper, so as with so much of her work, it's a conservationists nightmare.  The sandpaper takes the pastel easily and greedily, and the colour fills the tooth until there are large, intense flat areas of colour.  She's then drawn in the detail with a very fine, presumably very hard, sharp, black crayon.  

If you were around in Glasgow in the 1950s and 60s (as I was - the 60s that is), then it was a familiar sight to see chalk drawings on the sides of the tenements, which were made of sandstone, and had a similar surface.  Children chalked on the walls up as high as they could reach, and I'm sure that this sketch references that.

Eardley rattled off masses of these little pictures, giving lots of them to the Samson children, who took them home, where they were promptly used to light the fire.

Now, my son really disliked these 'pictures of clown children'.  As a child himself, he just didn't get what she was banging on about in these paintings with their cross-eyed, haystacked-haired, narrow-shouldered, red-cheeked urchins, and felt that they were in fact rather making fun of the children, going beyond keepin'-it-real and going into caricature, which made him feel a bit uncomfortable.  However, having spoken to members of the Samson family, they never felt that in any way themselves, for Joan never spoke down to them, and they doted on her and the love and attention she gave them.

The commercial truth is that the pieces of paper that once were thought only fit to light a tenement fire are now worth tens of thousands.

If you're in Edinburgh, get along to the Scottish Gallery and see this important show, which runs until April 27th.

View the work here.  Gasp at the prices.

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