Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place (4 stars)

Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place

© Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016.

New show links tragic narratives of the artist and the places she called home

Joan Eardley's too-young death of cancer at the age of 42 in 1963 has wrapped a kind of tragic envelope around her life and work. Coming nine years after a major retrospective of her work at the Scottish National Gallery – the first of only two such exhibitions in nearly thirty years, alongside this one – this new show incorporates the two subjects which really made her name and reputation; the poverty-stricken post-war children living in Glasgow's Townhead district, which was later razed to make way for the M8 motorway, and the tranquil but violent North Sea landscapes and seascapes of the small fishing village of Catterline, near Stonehaven.

The exhibition literature makes links between the crumbling destitution of Townhead, where Eardley held a studio, and the sense of decline in the North-East's fishing industry while she lived in Catterline, and these enforce a tragic narrative alongside the facts of her biography; not just her own death, but the suicide of her father in 1929. Yet to see the work in person shouldn't make the viewer think of tragedy. Her paintings of Townhead's children bear an almost spectral quality, the pale faces of the characters standing out from the background, but they're anything but unfriendly.

If anything, there's an innocence to Eardley's group portraits that's at odds with the grimy black and white reference photos which she and her friend Audrey Walker took, and which are also displayed here. An angelic, questioning innocence is captured in these stylised, cartoonish expressions, set against brightly-coloured backgrounds which speak boldly of the vivid technicolour in which childhood memories present themselves, against the grey uniformity of the real. In Catterline, on the other hand, the natural tableaux she captured were fearsome and elemental, bold swathes of blue, green, brown and white which spoke of the elemental rawness of the landscape. In each case, the strength of her connection with her subjects is humbling to the viewer.

Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 2, Edinburgh, until Sun 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A major overview of the short career of Joan Eardley (1921–1963), drawing on unpublished archival material and loans from private collections, and giving an insight into both her travels and her working methods.