Eardley Two Glasgow Lassies, c.1962-3 (Private Collection)

Two Glasgow lassies by Joan Eardley.

Senior citizens become more sophisticated in their maturity.  Perhaps it is true for all of us that we appreciate things more in later life.  Many of us silver surfers no longer look forward to a trip Doon the Watter for our leisure at weekends.  Most of us have been there, seen it and done all that – and found it very enjoyable. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, said: “The things of the past are never viewed in their true perspective or receive their just value.  But value and perspective change with the individual who is looking back on her past.”

It is inexplicable that we like nothing better than taking a nostalgic look back at the so-called Good Old Days, when things were not that good at all.  Some people scorn at nostalgia and decry memory, but without them we would be stuck in time.  We need to know where we have been in order to plan where we’re going. And so it was when we went to Edinburgh and spent a whole day looking round the three sites of the National Gallery of Scotland.  Cynics might say looking at paintings by El Greco, Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci and Monet is a long way from where we were brought up – and it is.  The paintings of Joan Eardley however took me all the way back to the Vennel and old Dumbarton, where I spent my childhood between College Street and Brucehill.  I really, really loved these images, which transported me not just to the Vennel of the 1950s but Townhead in Glasgow in the 1960s.  And the tiny, single end flat where I lived when I worked as a 16-year-old copy boy at the Scottish Daily Express. Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, was worth every penny of £9 it cost for admission.  Concession tickets cost £7.  There is a free mini-bus service which operates between all three SNG sites – the main gallery on the Mound; the Portrait Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art.  A Sense of Place charts the artist’s career through Eardley’s previously unpublished archival material and loans from private collections.  And the artist’s exact movements and unique working methods during her short but productive life between 1921 and 1963.

We were able to follow the many developments of Eardley’s life as she captured her two main subjects, the slums of Townhead and Rottenrow and the fishing village of Catterline on the north-east coast of Scotland. Wonderful paintings, borrowed from both private and public collections, accompany those from the Gallery’s own collection. This fascinating display consisted of a whole raft of material from a largely unknown archive of Eardley’s sketches and photographs.  New research has pinpointed the exact locations of many of the paintings, and detailed maps of Townhead and Catterline featured in the exhibition. Eardley moved to Glasgow from Sussex in 1940 and studied at the Glasgow School of Art.

 Weans at the windaes and a wee lassie skipping in the slums of Toonheid in Glesca with Joan Eardley painting another child. 

Her paintings of children playing in rundown tenements and her Catterline landscapes are among the most celebrated works in Scottish art.  They are consistently the most popular in the Gallery’s collection, with public requests to display them eclipsing even that of Pablo Picasso.  Tragically, Eardley’s career was cut short by cancer at the age of 42, but the exceptional quality of the art produced in barely 15 years leaves the lingering thought of what she may have achieved, had she lived longer.  Eardley moved regularly between Townhead and Catterline, two locations which on the surface contrast but were at heart not much different.  Both were tightknit communities under pressure, possessing a peculiar and, to Eardley, alluring ‘sense of place’. Townhead, like the Vennel in Dumbarton, where Eardley produced her works most faithful to realism, was bulldozed in the 1960s and no longer exists.  Joan opted to rent a studio in the overcrowded, dilapidated surroundings there. The exhibition displayed many photographs made by Eardley and her friend Audrey Walker during this time, of children, corner shops and teeming tenements, full of people.

 Eardley paintings of a lodger in a tenement and a carter and his horse.

To me they brought back memories of Nellie Garry’s chip shop in Dennystown or chipped fruit from Aranci’s on the brae in Cardross Road; broken biscuits from Woolworths; puff candy from Mary Baker’s in Church Street and soor plooms from Minnie Steel’s in College Park Street, old streets and kenspeckle folk. Many of these places are visited in my own book, All Our Yesterdays.  The photographs have a haunting quality: childhood and poverty are explored in a factual rather than sentimental manner.  Major paintings were completed during this period and include A Glasgow Lodging (1953) and A Carter and his Horse (1952), both of which were given to me with permission for publication by the National Gallery of Scotland. They are on the covers of this book, Two Minutes Silence.   The lodging picture is a large work which looks at a man standing in front of an inglenook surrounded by washing and the jaw box, the old name for a kitchen sink, where Eardley’s bright blues and reds are powerfully contrasted with the muddied browns and concrete greys.   Narrow pends and closes, old shop fronts, dirty children playing in the street, boys in hand-knitted Fair Isle jumpers and short trousers, girls playing skipping ropes.  All of these and the carter’s horse and cart have been captured on canvas and beautifully frozen in time.

Eardley’s interest in painting children dramatically increased in 1953, when she lived and worked near the Samsons, a family of twelve children.  The family were all willing and inquisitive models for Joan and are captured within many of the works in A Sense of Place.  Looking at the paintings, I certainly had a sense of being drawn back to the days when I played near the bus terminus in Napier Crescent, or ran up Kane’s or Copeland’s Pend in the College Street Vennel, hoping to cadge a penny for sweets or the price of the pictures from my aunties. Joan Eardley first visited Catterline in 1952.  There she painted seascapes, stormy skies, salmon nets, beehives, fields and cottages, producing some of her most celebrated art.  Curator Patrick Elliot has described many of Eardley’s paintings of the late 1950s as “heaving swarms of bold block colour”. He added: “Whilst her pastels teeter on the non-representational, their forceful dark scores are vigorously applied upon horizontal slabs of sea-blue.”  Eardley’s already established reputation burgeoned as her health and eyesight deteriorated. Sadly, 1963 was to be her final year, with the Gallery’s purchase of Children and Chalked Wall coming less than two months before she died on 16 August.  The setting for the majority of Eardley’s stunning seascapes, the shore near the Makin Green at Catterline, became her final resting place, with her ashes scattered there upon her death.


  • These words and pictures are extracts from Two Minutes Silence, a book by The Dumbarton Democrat editor Bill Heaney. It looks in words and pictures at Dumbarton and Vale of Leven and the people who lived and worked here in days gone by. The book is currently on sale from Jain at Made Guid, 92 Glasgow Road, Dumbarton,  G82 1JP. Because of COVID-19, the shop is open for reduced hours only on  Wednesday,   11am – 3pm;  Thursday,   11am – 3pm;  Friday,     11am – 7pm, and  Saturday,    11am – 3pm.


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