In the footsteps of Joan Eardley: meeting the artist's muses

From Townhead to Catterline, Susan Mansfield meets the family Joan Eardley famously captured in her paintings

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Joan Eardley's Muses

Two Children before Lettered Wall / © Estate of Joan Eardley

Catterline in winter: by mid afternoon, the sun is setting behind the South Row of cottages. From the path on the other side of the village, it is possible to pinpoint the exact spot where Joan Eardley stood to paint the iconic painting of the same name in 1963.

'It's giving me goosebumps just thinking about her walking along here,' says Anne McKenna, who knew the artist in a very different context. As Anne Samson, she was part of the extended family of Samson children whom Eardley painted in Townhead in Glasgow. She has valued her connection to Eardley for more than 50 years, but this is her first visit the North-east fishing village which became the artist's second home.

Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, a major new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, concentrates on the two contrasting 'places' between which the artist lived and worked. Drawing on photographs, sketches and letters, the exhibition seeks to reveal more about how she balanced the two. Curator Patrick Elliott says: 'In a letter, she says that an artist needs an escape route, you need to get away from what's familar. I think Catterline was a safety valve from Glasgow and vice versa.'

After completing post-diploma studies at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1940s, Eardley found herself drawn to Townhead in the overcrowded but vibrant East End. She was often out in the streets sketching the old shopfronts, the groups of unruly children at play, and it was here she met Andrew, the eldest of the 12 Samsons, who asked if she might paint him.

'So, when my ma said: "Where are you going after school?" and he said: "I'm going to this woman's house", my ma went down to meet her,' remembers Anne. 'She ended up saying: "I've got another 11 weans if you ever want to paint any of them," Joan loved it because she could get always get a wean of any age. As far as we were concerned, she was part of our family.'

'We would run wild in the studio. There would be four or five of us there at the same time, one of us would sit for her and the rest would play. I hated getting painted because you had to stand still.' But there was a reward: pennies, or sweets (Eardley had a sweet tooth herself and usually had a stash hidden), or a 'piece and treacle'. 'I'd be saying "Can I get my piece and treacle now?" and she wasn't even halfway through the painting.'

Joan Eardley's Muses

image: Catterline in Winter, 1963, 1963
The Townhead of the 1950s was razed to make way for the M8 motorway and the buildings of Strathclyde University. By contrast, Catterline looks little different, although beneath the surface, the changes are profound: the fishing boats in the harbour are gone, as are the salmon nets on the shore; the whitewashed cottages are now affluent homes. A sports car sits outside no.1, the house Eardley rented in the 1950s when it had no electricity or running water.

She discovered the village in 1950 when she put on an exhibition in Aberdeen, and soon afterwards, friend and fellow artist Annette Stephen offered her the use of the Watchie – a former Customs and Excise Watch House – as a studio. Ron Stephen (from another Catterline family of the same name) remembers her arrival in the village in his father's taxi. 'The day after she arrived, my brother went along with coal. He was shocked when he saw a mouse coming out of a hole on the back of her old radio. He was about to kill it, but she said: "Don't touch the mouse, he's my pet."'

The artist was a novelty in the village, carting her canvases and paints around Catterline in an old pram. 'We were kids, we just used to follow her around,' Stephen remembers. 'There wasn't much to do, you played cowboys and Indians for a bit, kicked a football, went to see what the artist was doing. People thought she was a passing-through person, but that was not the case.' Eardley stayed: when she could no longer use the Watchie, she rented and later bought the cottage at no.1, and eventually bought no.18 in 1959; the metal bench where she was photographed with her friends Lil Neilson and Angus Neil still sits outside.

It was to Catterline that she withdrew when she learned she was ill with the cancer which would claim her life at the age of just 42. 'I suppose there was a bit of mystique about her, but I think the whole thing is quite simple,' says Ron Stephen. 'This place gave her glorious quiet uninterrupted days to paint. When she was here, she just wanted nobody to interrupt her, just to get on with what she was doing. Latterly, (when she knew she was ill), she wanted as much time as she could to do her work.'

Now, the Watchie is a studio for Catterline-based artist Stuart Buchanan. Photographs of Eardley, Annette Stephen and a small painting by Lil Neilson sit on the old fireplace. Buchanan is used to their presence. 'You're always aware of them – in a good way, aware that there has been all this creativity within these walls. You just have to get on with painting, and if you can't get on with it here, you can't get on with it anywhere – it helps a bit.'

Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Modern Two, until Sat 21 May.

Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place

A major overview of the short career of Joan Eardley (1921–1963), drawing on unpublished archival material and loans from private collections, and giving an insight into both her travels and her working methods.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two, Edinburgh

Thu 27 Apr

£9 (£7) / 0131 624 6200

Fri 28 Apr

£9 (£7) / 0131 624 6200

Sat 29 Apr

£9 (£7) / 0131 624 6200

…and 22 more dates until 21 May

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