Mary Miers is ex­hil­a­rated by an ex­hi­bi­tion that brims with both an el­e­men­tal force and a touch­ing hu­man­ity

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Mary Miers is ex­hil­a­rated by a show cel­e­brat­ing Joan Eard­ley

Joan Eard­ley (1921–63) is one of Scot­land’s favourite Modern artists. Po­ets such as Ed­win Mor­gan and even mu­si­cians have com­posed in re­sponse to her work, yet, south of the bor­der, few now recog­nise her name. It’s true that she was, by na­ture, shy and re­tir­ing and spent most of her short work­ing life in only two places—the slums of Glas­gow and a tiny fish­ing vil­lage on the Kin­car­di­neshire coast—but she had sell­out lon­don shows and, as this ex­hi­bi­tion demon­strates to pow­er­ful ef­fect, her art was boldly orig­i­nal and burst­ing with ex­pres­sive vigour.

an­glo-english by birth—she spent her child­hood on a Sus­sex farm and then in Black­heath, lon­don—eard­ley moved with her mother and sis­ter to Scot­land in 1939. They set­tled in the Glas­gow sub­urb of Bears­den and she en­rolled at the Glas­gow School of art, where her work flour­ished un­der the tu­tor­ship of Hugh adam Craw­ford. although she dis­liked com­par­i­son, she was clearly in­ter­ested in Ex­pres­sion­ism and one pain­ter cited as an in­flu­ence is Chaim Sou­tine, whose work she saw in a 1942 ex­hi­bi­tion of Jewish art put on in Glas­gow by the Pol­ish émi­gré artist Josef Her­man, whose stu­dio she liked to visit.

In 1948, Eard­ley em­barked on a six-month travel schol­ar­ship to France and Italy, where she found the clar­ity of colour ‘in­cred­i­ble’, but the land­scape ‘too beau­ti­ful’ to paint. as Christo­pher an­drae points out in his mono­graph Joan Eard­ley (2013), she had far more in com­mon with north­ern Euro­pean artists than Mediter­ranean ones—nolde and the Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ists rather than Matisse. at­tracted to the wild and the prim­i­tive, she found nat­u­ral im­per­fec­tions more in­ter­est­ing to draw and paint and her pre­ferred sub­jects on that trip were the don­keys and fish­er­men, beg­gars and peas­ant life.

The ex­hi­bi­tion opens with views of the ship­yards and di­lap­i­dated town­scapes of the Clyde, the over­crowded ten­e­ments and street urchins of ‘the

liv­ing part of Glas­gow’ that gained Eard­ley ini­tial recog­ni­tion and at­tracted com­par­isons with the Kitchen Sink school of Real­ism. Much of the ma­te­rial comes from a largely un­known body of works do­nated to the gallery by her sis­ter, in­clud­ing su­perb black-and-white sil­verge­la­tine prints taken by Au­drey Walker, with whom she had an in­tense re­la­tion­ship. Paint­ings such as A Carter

and his Horse (ex­hib­ited at the Royal Scot­tish Academy in 1952), A Glas­gow Lodg­ing and

A Stove show Eard­ley’s pref­er­ence for a pal­ette of dark browns, blacks, muddy greens and a deep oxblood red, to which she would in­tro­duce dashes of her favourite lapis-lazuli blue.

Later, graf­fi­tied walls be­came a char­ac­ter­is­tic el­e­ment of her Glas­gow works, which now fo­cused on the slum chil­dren in the lit­ter­strewn closes of Town­head, a con­demned part of the city cen­tre where she had her stu­dio. At­tracted by their lack of self­con­scious­ness, she found these squint­ing lassies in their rag­doll dresses and bony-kneed scamps in Start-rite sandals and over­sized shorts will­ing models in ex­change for a few pen­nies, a mug of tea and a syru­pand-cheese sand­wich.

These pic­tures are de­void of sen­ti­men­tal­ity and con­tain no in­tended po­lit­i­cal or so­cial mes­sage; they are sim­ply char- ac­ter stud­ies ob­served with a wry honesty of a genre of child with which she de­vel­oped a fond rap­port. For all their pop­u­lar­ity, the images are, how­ever, some­what un­set­tling with their mask­like faces, dis­torted fea­tures and haunt­ing, bored-out eyes.

In 1954, Eard­ley be­gan rent­ing a rudi­men­tary cot­tage in Cat­ter­line, where she be­friended another tough, close-knit com­mu­nity fac­ing de­cline, who took this man­nish fig­ure al­ways out­doors paint­ing and sketch­ing en­tirely in their stride. Here, she im­mersed her­self in paint­ing the raw north-east land­scape with its ‘vast al­len­velop­ing seas and skies’ and found her­self ‘pretty well bash­ing at paint­ing all the time. A sort of reck­less kind of bash­ing… I’ve got about 14 paint­ings on the go’.

The con­trast of the ru­ral and ur­ban suited her com­plex char­ac­ter and she rarely moved from her two work­ing bases, the one pro­vid­ing a respite from the other.

The Cat­ter­line works dif­fer in one main re­spect: they rarely con­tain peo­ple. Fo­cus­ing at first on the cot­tages and fields, then the beach, with its nets and boats, and, lat­terly, the sea, they chart an in­creas­ing move to­wards ab­strac­tion, although the lo­ca­tion is al­ways iden­ti­fi­able. Ob­jects are formed into com­po­si­tional shapes, as in

Corn­field at Night­fall and Sarah’s Cot­tage; the vi­o­lence of the el­e­ments is con­veyed with pow­er­fully ex­pres­sive knife scor­ings and ges­tu­ral brush­work.

The show ends with a se­ries of as­ton­ish­ing sea paint­ings, of­ten done in the storms that Eard­ley pre­ferred to sum­mer days, when she would lash her boards to the rocks and en­dure hellish con­di­tions.

Eard­ley would later ac­knowl­edge an in­ter­est in Jack­son Pol­lock and the Tachistes and it’s tan­ta­lis­ing to won­der how she would have de­vel­oped had she not died of can­cer at the age of 42. How­ever, as this ret­ro­spec­tive shows, she de­vel­oped a way of paint­ing the things that moved her that was en­tirely her own, her main im­pe­tus be­ing the di­rect ob­ser­va­tion of a place or sub­ject for which she felt a deep fa­mil­iar­ity and at­tach­ment. ‘It’s a sort of in­ti­mate thing I like,’ she said. ‘I think you’ve got to know some­thing be­fore you paint it.’

‘Joan Eard­ley: A Sense of Place’ is at the Scot­tish Na­tional Gallery of Modern Art, 73, Belford Road, Ed­in­burgh, un­til May 21 (www.na­tion­al­gal­leries.org; 0131–624 6200). A cat­a­logue of the same ti­tle by cu­ra­tor Pa­trick El­liott with Anne Galas­tro is pub­lished by NGS (£19.95) Next week: Amer­i­can 1930s paint­ing at the Royal Academy

July Fields (1960–62). Eard­ley ground her own pig­ments and painted with a sense of ur­gency, splat­ter­ing and scraping with a pal­ette knife

Jan­uary Flow Tide (1960) con­veys Eard­ley’s to­tal im­mer­sion in her sub­ject. She pre­ferred heav­ing seas and bliz­zards to sunny days

Chil­dren and Chalked Wall 3 in­cor­po­rates news­pa­per and metal foil

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