‘In Scotland, she’s huge’: Why was Joan Eardley forgotten by England?

On the 100th anniversary of her birth, William Cook examines Joan Eardley’s huge contribution to the arts, and asks why she isn’t as celebrated in the country where she was born and raised

Monday 17 May 2021 21:30
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<p>‘This is a strange, strange place, it always excites me’ – Joan Eardley in Catterline 1961</p>

‘This is a strange, strange place, it always excites me’ – Joan Eardley in Catterline 1961

This summer, art galleries all over Scotland are celebrating the centenary of one of Scotland’s favourite artists, a woman who captured the essence of urban and rural life in her powerful, unsentimental paintings. In Scotland, Joan Eardley is that rare and precious thing – an artist who cuts through. Art historians revere her, but she’s also adored by folk who rarely go to galleries. She’s equally popular with the cognoscenti and the hoi polloi.

“In Scotland, she’s huge,” says Patrick Elliott, senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and the author of an absorbing new book about Joan Eardley. And yet south of the border, it’s a different story. In England, where she was born and raised, it’s hard to find anyone who’s heard of her. You might meet the odd artist or curator who knows (and loves) her work but to most “Sassenachs”, even art-lovers, her name means nothing. It’s the same story overseas. So why do Scots feel such a close connection with her gutsy paintings? And why is she virtually unknown elsewhere?

Joan Eardley was born in Sussex on 18 May 1921. Her father, William, was English, and her mother, Irene, was Scot. William was a farmer and had fought in the First World War on the Western Front. This ordeal left him with severe shell shock and he suffered from depression and when the farm failed he turned to drink. In 1926, William went to Lincoln, to work for the Ministry of Agriculture, and Irene took Joan and her younger sister Pat to London, to live with Joan’s maternal grandmother in Blackheath. Then, in 1929, William took his own life. It wasn’t until she was in her late teens that Joan learned that her father’s death had been suicide.

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