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ONE of Scotland’s greatest and best-loved painters, Joan Eardley, would have been 100 next year. Her death at the age of just 42 in 1963 from breast cancer means that we are always left wondering at what greatness and international stardom she could have achieved in her lifetime had she lived longer.
Eardley is known for two subjects: the buildings and children of Townhead in Glasgow, and Catterline in the north-east coast of Scotland. She came to Glasgow in 1940, from Lincolnshire, the 18-year-old Eardley, her sister Pat and their mother, their father lost to a recent family tragedy.
She had a precocious talent encouraged by her art teacher at St Helen’s School, Blackheath, but after moving north, Glasgow School of Art was her natural destination.
Here she had many friends and kindred minds, but the years of war were harsh and this along with her studies and painting combined, the travelling scholarships to France and Italy would have to wait. Instead she went to Clydebank and painted the shipyards, and the people, especially the children of Clydeside.
There were trips to Arran with student friends and she worked in the countryside around Bearsden where the family settled. As travel was restricted, the art school encouraged students to make studies of Glasgow, particularly the east end as it was within in walking distance and the medieval heartland; the slums made for compelling, gritty subject matter.
The first studio she took at the end of 1949 was on Cochrane Street in Townhead, a “slum” area closest to the city centre, starting at the rear of Queen Street Station and stretching to Glasgow Cathedral.
For Eardley, the black tenements right on the street, with their rear drying greens, were inseparable from the inhabitants, which at this time numbered more than 30,000.
The life and colour of the community was on the streets, immortalised in the photographs of Oscar Marzaroli (a friend who also made portraits of the artist) and of course Eardley’s drawings and paintings.
The shops on Rottenrow, the “close” mouths (doorways) with kids sitting in a huddle on the steps, the rubbish on the streets, the graffiti, the prams pushed by big sisters. Eardley quickly became accepted in the community and the warmth of the stove in her studio was a draw in the winter months when a child was happy to sit for a few minutes in return for a boiled sweet.
The children were drawn to her: “Joan, Joan, will you paint me?” She got to know numerous children from Townhead, in particular the Samson family who featured in many works, which became poignant images of privation — rosy-cheeked kids wearing hand-me-down clothes and shoes for all seasons — the children didn’t know they were poor and their character burns through the decades.
Speaking in a BBC recording in 1963, Eardley said of the children: “They hardly notice me when they come in, they are full of what they have been doing. Who has gone to jail, who has broken into what shop, who flung a pie into whose face, and so it goes … they are letting out their life. I try to think in painterly terms — bits of red — all funny bits of colours. For me they are Glasgow. This sort of richness that I know that Glasgow has, that I hope it always will have.”
Eardley’s depiction of the children who came in and out of her Townhead studio is not uncontroversial. To some tastes these paintings and drawings seem overly sentimental. Others strongly refute this interpretation, which contains the accusation that the work lacks truth. In reality, she was an artist anthropologist, observing and participating, neither sentimentalising nor disguising the poverty, recording a world where the adults were indoors, working, or in the pub, and the children were the street — lives lived as they cannot be today.
The trousers tied up with cord in A Glasgow Boy, c1953, is an observation, not a motif, just as the chalked walls and boarded up windows were the precursor to the slum clearance that would follow.
Glasgow Tenements, Blue Sky, 1956 is a pre-eminent example of Eardley’s early depictions of Glasgow. The block of the tenement sits on a hill (the town sat on an undulating landscape), pulling a little at its neighbour, but as solid as a castle. It is dark, but not menacing and imbued with life: light comes from windows, washing hangs above the sunken courtyard in front, a figure emerges from the doorway with a cart, or pram.
Her mark making is incisive and vigorous, the human history of the building’s pollution, weathering and repair, recorded honestly and with a deep affection far from social commentary.
Townhead is now long gone, bulldozed to make way for Buchanan Street shopping centre, new roads and thoroughfares; gone are the University printworks in Stanhope Street, later Collins, gone the Sun Foundry in Kennedy Street and the warehouses, which had once stored and distributed the wealth of the second city of the Empire.
Many of the inhabitants of Townhead were moved to new towns such as East Kilbride or Cambuslang, or closer to home in the now notorious Red Row Tenements (demolished in 2015). Many felt like they became refugees years later and lamented the loss of their home — they may have been poor, but they had a close and warm community.
From the late-1950s Eardley made her home in Catterline, but she never gave up the studio in Townhead and even after she had died a few relics were rescued before the final demolition of the street in ’67.
It had been a photographer’s studio before and had excellent top light and a few iconic photographs survive from Eardley’s occupation, some capturing her with a wee boy or girl, sketchpad on her knee, holding the child’s eye and persuading them to be still for a minute more, drawings pinned up to the walls, frames stacked against the wall, a painting in progress on the easel.
The Scottish Gallery represented Eardley in her lifetime and we have continued to champion her talent. We will be celebrating her centenary year during the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2021.
Christina Jansen is the managing director of The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh
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