There were two Joan Eardleys, according to a new biography of the Scottish painter by Christopher Andreae. There was ‘the tender and gentle Joan’, as revealed by her bosom friend Audrey Walker, and ‘the tough, cussing, swearing, bulldozing, indomitable creator of what may be masterpieces’. Both are reflected in the Portland Gallery’s new exhibition of drawings and paintings from the last 20 years of her short life (until 17 May).
The tough Joan chose the challenging subject matter, dividing her time between the rotting tenements of unreconstructed Glasgow and the leaky fisherman’s cottages of Catterline, south of Aberdeen. Her restless eye was irresistibly drawn to moving targets, whether swarms of street urchins in clashing hand-me-down clothes or crashing breakers under granite skies, see ‘Todhead Point’ above (during one blizzard her easel had to be secured with an anchor).
Her expressionist style was a direct response to her subjects. The tender Joan captured these in calmer moments, in pensive portraits of the Samson family children made in the quiet of her Glasgow studio and in summer landscapes of flowers on the Catterline cliff-tops. Unlike the Scottish Colourists, she was sparing in her use of colour. Her palette was rooted in the earths of English painting, shot through with Scottish colour like a Fair Isle sweater.
To a BBC interviewer in 1963, the year she died of cancer aged 42, she confessed to being a romantic of sorts: ‘I believe in the sort of emotion that you get from what your eyes see.’ She communicated that emotion in her own style; there’s no one like her.