‘Her popularity even outshines artists such as Picasso here in Scotland’
Extracts from Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place
By Patrick Elliott with Anne Galastro
Published by NGS Publishing
In anticipation of Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, we spoke to the authors about the book and Eardly’s much-loved oeuvre.
Q&A with Patrick Elliott, author and curator of the exhibition
What do you feel makes this book unique?
As well as including Joan Eardley’s well-known works, the book draws on a largely unknown and, in many cases, previously unpublished range of sketches and photographs – people will be fascinated to see them all brought together in this way. The book also includes a number of works from private collections. But the unique features of this book also take you into a much deeper understanding of Joan Eardley. This is the first time that her artistic development through photography, sketching and painting has been catalogued chronologically and so specifically in relation to time and place. Her movements have always been notoriously difficult to pin down and other books tend to jump around chronologically. But we have researched all of the material in a painstaking way, enabling us to piece together accurately where she was and when.
Are there any aspects of the book that you feel particularly thrilled about?
It’s fascinating to be able to see, on the specially prepared maps, Eardley’s exact location as she worked. Also, unlike other studies, this book concentrates on the very heart of her work, focusing on her two favourite artistic locations: Townhead in Glasgow and Catterline, near Stonehaven. Many have documented the differences between the city and rural locations in her work but this book draws important and much more interesting parallels – in both of these places, people were living on the edge. In Glasgow, people were wrestling with poverty while in Catterline, the number of fishermen had dropped from 100 to twenty. The warmth in Joan Eardley’s paintings imbues the focus on people living in bad situations with an uplifting quality that chimes with people just as much today as when Eardley was painting.
Why do you think that Joan Eardley is so popular?
Well, she’s certainly very popular – she is a huge draw and her popularity even outshines artists such as Picasso here in Scotland. Her images of childhood in the tenements of Glasgow and of the wild seas and huge skies of the North East are very appealing. But I think it is the warmth and humanity that pervades her work that seals her reputation. Her career was struck tragically short – she died at the age of forty-two, before her well-deserved status as a major British artist could be fully recognised and acknowledged so, in a sense, she is Scotland’s wonderful ‘secret’. But I hope that this book will help to continue to make her work appreciated more widely beyond our borders.
Q&A with Anne Galastro, co-author
Why has it been difficult in the past to piece together Eardley’s movements?
Eardley was not a character who sought publicity. She was interested above all in pursuing her painting, and tended to consider giving interviews about her work a waste of her precious artistic time, so there are not many direct accounts of where she was and when. She hardly ever dated her paintings or drawings, almost never dated her letters, and enjoyed moving about discreetly from one place to another, so it has been difficult to track her movements with any accuracy.
What made it possible to find out the chronology of her work at this point?
In 2009, the archive material deposited with the National Library of Scotland by the family of Lady Audrey Walker became available to the public. This provided a very thorough account of Eardley’s time in Catterline; the letters from Eardley to Walker begin in 1954 and continue up to Eardley’s death in 1963. By a process of piecing together snippets of information in these letters with other letters she wrote to her family, with the contemporary reviews of her works in exhibitions, and by referring in as much detail as possible to the legal records of her house purchases in Catterline, we have been able to form a more accurate timeline of her movements. This allows us to appreciate more fully how her work evolved over the course of her brief career.
In what ways is the book enhanced by having maps and a chronology of Eardley’s work?
All her work is imbued with such a strong sense of place (hence the title of this book!) that having maps of the areas where the paintings were created adds to the viewer’s perception of what she was trying to achieve. Obviously the Townhead paintings depict a world that no longer exists; her portraits of the children there show their fragility in this decaying environment, but also their spirit and tenacity. Seeing the old photographs and having a map of this now-destroyed part of Glasgow explains to us what a close-knit community it was. In Catterline, it is still possible to identify the precise spots where she set up her easel, so here, having the map reinforces our understanding of Eardley as an artist who looked intently at the landscape. We can retrace her steps and see almost the same views she saw, and observe just how carefully she recorded every detail.
How would you define Eardley’s place in Scottish art history?
Joan Eardley is remarkable first and foremost as a very successful artist in her own time who spent her entire career working in Scotland. As we point out in the book, unlike her near-contemporaries such as Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, Eardley chose to remain in Scotland, finding her inspiration in the specific environments of Townhead and Catterline – two places that allowed her to work unimpeded by material concerns and uninhibited by current fashions. Despite, or perhaps because of, her solitary working practice, Eardley was a great innovator, with a strongly individual approach to her art. She was always looking forward, thinking about what she might try out next in her work.
Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, by Patrick Elliott with Anne Galastro, can be pre ordered now and will be published in late November 2016 by NGS Publishing priced £19.95. This book will accompany the major exhibition Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place which will be held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from 3 December 2016 to 21 May 2017.