Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, until Sun 13 Jan
The peculiar psychology which leads many notable artists’ works to only truly be appreciated after they have died is hard to explain, with the premature passing of an artist lending an added, sometimes unwelcome romance to their legacy. Joan Eardley is one case in point, her death from breast cancer in 1963 lending her art a sad chance for early reappraisal. She was 42, but the volume and quality of her output until that point was enough to support an exhibition of this scale.
Born in Sussex and based in Glasgow from the age of 19, when she moved there to study at the School of Art, much of Eardley’s most prominent oil paintings recreate the post-war hardships of the Townhead area where she lived in bright, optimistic style. The children who played around the streets were her key subjects, and she painted them in a particular fashion which blended the realism of their situation – these are almost Dickensian street urchins, shown against a chalk-graffitied working class backdrop – with a certain abstract air.
The kids are cartoon-like, their faces round and innocent, their button eyes lending them to look like posed dolls. Although Eardley’s recreation of natural light is well observed, the scrawled-on sandstone tenement bricks in the background blend and wash together, creating an almost protoplasmic hyperrealist effect.
In her later years, Eardley was to discover a new muse in Catterline, just south of Aberdeen. A coastal town where she occasionally holidayed, the landscape on the North Sea fascinated her, particularly during storms – legend has it that she would begin packing to travel there from Glasgow as soon as she heard a report of bad weather. The results are stunning, like Turner flooded with a kind of raw, primal energy.
Her slate-grey skies – best seen in the wonderful ‘Catterline in Winter’ – rest above slashing white foam waves, and certain of these coastal landscapes were actually left outdoors by the artist overnight to ‘weather’. The results are dramatic and perfectly evocative of the Scottish climate, encompassing a natural spectacle which would have long out-survived the artist in any event.