A Journey to meet Joan Eardley

A Journey to meet Joan Eardley

I like the idea that fate plays a part in our lives and Joan Eardley was calling me. We have a beach hut for the winter at Crooklets and I have an idea to paint the sea in all weathers using the beach hut as my base and also sanctuary for tea and soup.

My heroine has long been Joan Eardley, a painter of semi abstract expressive seascapes on a massive scale. She painted outside in all weathers and ever since I saw a painting at the ‘Power of the Sea’ exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, I have been waiting for a new show of her work. So you can imagine as a fatalist this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

This new exhibition was full of previously unseen works from private collections. This included one not seen in England since it was painted which came from the British Embassy in Tokyo, as well as intimate family letters with photographs and press releases. It all came together to give a real insight into the life she led.

Rather than write a biography of this amazing lady I wanted to write about my experience. There are a few links at the bottom of the page which outline her work during her short life. She died at the age of 42 from breast cancer, but can’t help wonder what she might have gone on to produce and leave as her legacy. As it is, there are several hundred paintings from her home at Catterline of the village and sea, but also from her days in Glasgow where she painted the children in the streets and slums inviting them into her studio to sit for her. They are all stunning, very different in subject and composition, but alive with the same colour.

Explaining the two contrasting subjects and her time spent in Catterline on the coast, she said ‘These kind of goings away are entirely necessary for me. If you paint, you need a rest but not the kind of rest an ordinary person thinks of, a holiday ‘. She divided her time between Glasgow and Catterline and could approach each subject with a fresh eye. Her passion to paint was so strong, it was part of her everyday life.

We flew to Edinburgh during a cold snap in early December. From the guesthouse we walked just 1/2 a mile to the Galleries of Modern Art just outside the city centre. It was a fabulous crisp sunny morning but the frost was so strong and deep it felt like snow (not something we are used to in Cornwall).

Along leafy streets, down a wooded slope we joined the Water of Leith. Crossing a bridge in this deep valley we ascended the other side to come out into the grounds of the galleries. It was an amazing start to the day. After visiting gallery One with a great selection of modern art from Bridget Riley to Warhol, with a mix of the French Impressionists and Scottish Colourists, we made out way across to the Dean Gallery for the main exhibition of Joan Eardley’s work titled ‘A Sense of Place’ in another beautiful building.

Laid out over two floors in five galleries every turn gave you another view to a magnificent artwork. Thinking of it as a pilgrimage, the reality of being there, the excitement and a long felt connection; to see it all in reality with her use of colour and having a real feel of her being in the room, I welled up with tears more than once.

From her drawings & sketches to her large works, there was a lovely journey of discovery of who Joan was and what her art meant to her. She used an enormous amount of paint and wasn’t afraid to be vigorous with it. Very few gentle strokes, but scrapes with thicker dry brush and softer rubbed areas just made your nerve endings tingle. The colours were confident and there was a strong blue she obviously loved that was jewel like and made other colours just sing.

I felt a connection with this lady; she was confident, in her life and her art. She loved to paint on the beach in all weathers loading her motorbike with canvas and paints. The sea paintings on a massive scale are quite abstract and painted very quickly at each session. Many completed over several months with the oil thick in places and collage and sand mixed in. There was little white. A turquoise underpainting almost disappeared with greys, greens, siennas and blues all which way. They were totally mesmerising. People just stood and gazed. Why do we stand and gaze at artwork? It touches a part of our soul that nothing else reaches….that’s the only simple explanation I can come up with.

I could go on and on and on. Her paintings so full of vigour, amazing colour, texture and vitality there is lots to say. Choosing to wear men’s trousers ( her mother disapproved), repairing her cottage ceiling with old canvases, she loved her surroundings, she lived for her art; she died too young.

The title of this post was nearly ‘I promised my son I wouldn’t get a motorbike’ . I have been so obsessed with Joan Eardley I think my family fear I might turn into her. My son’s comment to my facebook post about my pilgrimage to Edinburgh was ”Mum…. just don’t get a motorbike! ‘.

I thought this article on the exhibition was the pick of the bunch. BBC Joan Eardley and more of her art here and for more about our trip to Edinburgh there will be a follow up post.


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