Just west of Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the cathedral, in the Townhead area, children were wearing out the last of the streets. There were ads in corner shops for Capstan Full Strength; there were public baths in Collins Street. There were numerous pawnbrokers. Boys were playing at jiggies on the corner of McAslin Street, Kearney’s Bar was open in Castle Street, and the Co-operative Society in Parliamentary Road was well attended. Vans were busy with flittings. Irn-Bru was being drunk. There were broken windows, boarded-up shops, footballs bouncing off gable ends. The Casino Picture House was showing several films a day. Black police vans scuttled past like creepy-crawlies. The Sun Foundry in Kennedy Street was belting out smoke. The chains in the swing park were all twisted up. Rattray’s Cycles was open in Murray Street and the Rottenrow Maternity Hospital did tea for visitors at 10 a.m. Rag and bone men appeared with balloons for ‘any old rags’. Girls stoated about in their mother’s high heels, kids with squints or harelips, cowlicks or NHS specs. The boys wore woollen tank-tops and grey shorts; the girls had pinafores and ragged cardigans. They did handstands. They played in the middens. They knew the lamplighters. They had buns from the City Bakery. They drank bottles of milk and Virol. On lucky days when the sun was out they had picnics up at the Necropolis. Dr No was showing down below. The Beatles were on the wireless and Steptoe and Son had started on TV.
Joan Eardley painting the Samson children. Pictures by courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland.
The Samsons lived on the top floor at 115 Rottenrow. The father, Andrew, known to everybody as Sam, was 42, an ex-serviceman. His wife, Jean, was 40. She had been Jane Culross Third in 1942, when they got married at St Mungo’s R.C. Church. They were just round the corner from Sam’s parents, who lived in a tenement on Ronald Street that was being prepared for demolition. There were twelve Samson children and they filled the cobbled streets around them with their games and dramas. When they got fed up, or when it got too cold outside, they would do what their oldest brother, Andrew, used to do, and head over to the junction of St James Road and McAslin Street, where there was a scrap metal dealer on the corner. A side door marked 204 led to a winding staircase. Sometimes, a man was standing at the close, a man with a hunchback. Nobody knew his name. He was probably drunk. Mary and Pat didn’t like him, and would run away, but if he wasn’t there they would go up the stairs, looking for ‘Joan the artist’.
The first thing I saw when I walked into the show at the Hunterian Gallery (until 31 October) was a small painting in yellow and red oils, heavily impastoed. It was called Sweet Shop, Rottenrow (1961). I’d seen the picture once before, many years ago, at the poet Edwin Morgan’s flat in Anniesland. He bequeathed it to Glasgow University, which is how it came to be in the Hunterian. The children in the painting are on the move, limbs going, hair flying, and the shop sign is painted over earlier signs that show through in places. Another picture, Two Girls against Red (1960), is done with pastel on sandpaper. (The binder clings to the sand, giving a tiny depth of field.) The girls, their heads together, each with an arm slung around the other’s neck, have eyes fixed on the present. In all Joan Eardley’s paintings of the Samson children, they seem to have some common knowledge only the painter can access. They are fidgety children who become fixed with candour; they are tenement apparitions, scratched into the urban record, surrounded by a randomness of graffiti and change.
Eardley’s short career is one of the most fascinating of her generation. She is a feverish, romantic successor to Goya and Soutine, and in these Glasgow pictures she is essentially a storyteller, capturing a community as it vanishes. The other pole of her painting life had nothing to do with urban Glasgow, but was situated among the seascapes and fields of Catterline, a village on the Kincardineshire coast that she began to visit in the early 1950s. It has taken a long time – this is her centenary year – for her command over her chosen domains to become clear. She was an out lesbian in a male world, a sharp intelligence in a world of sometimes brutal sentimentality. The Glasgow art scene was ‘a notoriously tough, hard-drinking, back-biting milieu’, Patrick Elliott writes in the thoughtful study that accompanied this summer’s show of Eardley’s work at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It was a world not keen on artists born in England, or gay people. The Glasgow Art Club ‘did not admit women until 1983’, he writes.
Eardley’s pictures of the Samson children were impulsive and strange. Street life itself seems to be smeared onto their faces and crowded into their eyes. ‘They are completely uninhibited,’ she told a BBC interviewer, ‘and they just behave as they would among themselves. They almost seem not to notice I’m there. The Samsons ... are full of what’s gone on today – who’s broken into what shop and who’s flung a pie in whose face – it goes on and on. They just let out all the life and energy they haven’t been able to at school and I just watch them and I do try and think about them in painterly terms.’ She painted them thousands of times, paying them in shillings, or things to eat. When I asked Andrew Samson, her favourite model, now eighty, what he thought of her paintings, he said he preferred artists whose work was ‘clearer’. I FaceTimed Andrew when he went to visit his sister Mary for the weekend, and it was distinctly odd to see their faces side by side on the screen after having inspected so many portraits of them from more than sixty years ago. ‘From our tenement in Rottenrow we could see right over the whole of Glasgow,’ he told me. ‘Nowadays you’d pay money for a view like that. In those days there were tramcars. At night, looking down, you would see sparks flying up as the tramcars crossed the junctions. It was like little thunderstorms all over the city.’
He first met Joan Eardley in Hopetoun Place. ‘She had a little kiddies’ pushchair,’ he said. ‘And she got her easel set up. I was twelve. She was painting one of the buildings. I stood watching her and she asked me if I’d pose for her, so I said I would. Her studio was on the corner of St James Road. It used to be a glazer’s shop. The whole ceiling was glass, painted over for privacy. When you got inside her studio, you came down two steps, and you walked along, and on the left-hand side, there was a stove. You went down and she had a big joiner’s bench, and then a wee alcove, with a kitchen.’
‘A big wood-burner,’ Mary added. She now lives in the East End of Glasgow. ‘We were ragamuffins,’ she said. ‘We played out on the street with tins and clabber [mud] until all hours at night.’
‘Aye,’ Andrew said. ‘We played a game called kick-the-can-run-fast. But I went to Joan’s if it was cold. The painting with the comic [Andrew with a Comic], what she did was she gave me a cup of tea, there was a comic there, and a sandwich. It was bread, butter, cheese and golden syrup. So, I was quite happy to sit there.’
‘They wear each other’s clothes,’ Eardley wrote in a letter at the time, ‘and sometimes Bobby gets Betty’s shoes. You never get them wearing the same clothes even if you ask them. But that doesn’t matter, it is part of the thing I feel.’
There’s a newness in that, painting what you feel in a way that engages the nervous system of the viewer. Francis Bacon was doing it too: Eardley and Bacon were included in a series of group shows at the Arthur Tooth Gallery in London in the late 1950s. The paintings that emerged from Eardley’s work with the Samson children are sometimes taken for ‘humane’ depictions of poverty, or for political statements. They are neither. Her marks both summon reality and subvert it, expressing something vital but ephemeral in her small subjects. The pictures show decrepit buildings and startled faces, but also something more essential – movement, stillness. We see the spirit of young lives caught in meagre surroundings, but there is something there beyond likeness or representation.
Eardley’s own childhood began in rural niceness in Sussex and continued in private tutelage and family uncertainty in Blackheath after her father lost the family farm. He shot himself in a layby in 1929. Ten years later she moved to the world of her mother’s people in Glasgow. Her time at art school was marked by a genteel estrangement. She did well, but she had no confidence. One of the deft brilliances of these first Eardley paintings is that the children in them look vulnerable but also experienced, as children like that often do. She may simply have sensed where to look for that kind of energy. But it may also have been that her knowledge of social forces was greater than she was ready to admit. On a shelf in the St James Road studio, she had a book about Basil Spence, the architect appointed to replace the slums of the Gorbals, across the Clyde from Townhead, with glittering tower-blocks. She expressed no opinion on the matter, but her pictures do, showing the slum children in situ, eyes flaring, on the cusp of losing a world that had seemed so filled with their necessities. The Samson family moved to a new house in Roystonhill in 1963.
Town and country are often foes in Scottish culture. Sunset Song is the name given to the first book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s great Scots Quair, set in the farmlands and coastal villages of the Mearns in North-East Scotland, south of Aberdeen. In the final book, Chris Guthrie moves to the city, and the novel is called Grey Granite, with tram sparks and tenement grime in attendance. A similar journey, from Eden to Hell, was described by the Orkney poet and critic Edwin Muir. When his father moved the family to Glasgow they felt like they were being punished. ‘We sailed from Stromness in the middle of winter, on a dark, windy day.’ The slums, he wrote, ‘filled me with a sense of degradation ... The crumbling houses ... the obscene words casually heard in passing, the ancient, haunting stench of pollution and decay, the arrogant women, the mean men, the terrible children ... On some of the faces I passed every day now there seemed to be things written that only a fantastic imagination could have created.’
Eardley caught those faces, more than fifty years later, but the journey she made was the reverse of Chris Guthrie’s. Catterline was a place where landscape, weather and expressionism huddled in the early dark. After several visits she set herself up on the headland, in a primitive cottage, and worked incessantly. (It was often so cold she took a lemonade bottle full of hot water to bed.) The cottages themselves were her first subject, and she painted them initially in the figurative mode that had served her so well in the city. ‘It is as if,’ Elliott writes, ‘being accustomed to painting Glasgow tenements, she cannot cope with a dramatic change of subject, and has to tackle the village using formulas she already knows.’ She painted the fields, and her pictures of seeded grasses and tumultuous summers are among her best works. Among the highlights of the anniversary show held earlier this year at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh were several gouaches of ripening barley, corn stooks and a hedgerow, mad with green and a sense of arrival. She spoke of the ‘landscape inside me’. ‘No one comes,’ she wrote to a friend. ‘Flowers come.’
Then she turned round and faced the sea. About six miles south of Stonehaven, the bay at Catterline forms a perfect amphitheatre. Cottage No. 1, which she started to rent in 1954, was the most southerly house in the village and stood at the edge of the cliff above the rough sea. Her work immediately increased in size, and she started using boards instead of canvases, which she would plant outside, or at the beach, with stones and ropes and anchors to hold them down. She wore oilskins. Something dark and gestural enters the pictures at this point. Using boat paint as well as artist’s paint, and deploying thick, loaded brushes, her stroke expands and becomes freer, her sense of dimensions changing as she blazes into abstraction. ‘When I am painting in the north-east ... I hardly ever move from one spot,’ she said. ‘I do feel the more you know something the more you can get out of it – the more it gives you ... I think I am painting what I feel about scenery ... it’s just a vast waste, vast seas, vast areas of cliff.’
She painted salmon nets, boats, the pier and the cove. In 1962, suffering from neck pain and depression, she lugged huge boards up and down from the shore, painting until last light. Standing in front of Seascape (Foam and Blue Sky), on display at the Gallery of Modern Art show in Edinburgh, you feel you are inside the blue-green sky as it fights against the tide. The texture of it, the blinding swipe and daub, the dripping paint, the rush of salt, new colour and spray, makes the work an elemental force. It points to the Abstract Expressionists, it points to other artists, but mainly it points to the psychic density of standing before that sea. ‘She stood and worked heroically till the light had gone,’ her friend Audrey Walker wrote. ‘Everything was iced over, even down at the shore, and the cold was intense.’
I asked Andrew what his mother had thought of the paintings Eardley made of her children. ‘She thought they were a bit drastic,’ he said.
‘And what happened to you all?’
‘Well, I got married and had two kids,’ Mary said. ‘Pat, the red-headed one, still lives in Royston to this day and so does Ann. They’re always together. George died, and Brian died, too, of leukaemia. David died in a car crash thirty years ago. He was only 28. Jimmy joined the merchant navy and ended up in Australia.’
‘I’ve got two daughters and four grandkids,’ Andrew said. ‘And I say to them, “When I’m dead and gone, the paintings will still be there.”’
‘Oh, aye,’ Mary added. ‘To this day, I could describe Joan Eardley’s studio in St James Road better than I could my own house.’
Eardley’s best paintings come from the last year of her life. In The Sea II (1963), now in Huddersfield Art Gallery, the world is constantly tilted or refracted, agglutinating paint. It retrains the eye, this stuff. You start by looking for evidence of boats or nets, scanning the messy horizon for birds or sunsets or any helpful expedient of reassurance, but you don’t get them. Instead you get chaos and an encounter with disintegrating form. In that sense, the paintings from all the provinces of Eardley’s working life – decaying tenements, lost youth with the sweet wrappers of Rottenrow pasted in, summer fields with the grasses of the Catterline fields mixed in, stormy seas, winter snows – amount to a consistent vision of life’s overwhelming flux.
In her masterpiece, Catterline in Winter (1963), she brings her eye back to what passes up there for dry land, but the aperture is now widened by the ocean and what she saw there and what that seeing did to her style. The cottages are deliquescent, tilting like a giant wave under the ominous sky and a heartbreaking blob of moon, evoking untold winter nights and natural histories, untold spots of time and human watchings. Here is the night at the end of the world. You can feel the sea-spray overhead and the crunch of frozen grass underfoot. You see a path. But mainly what you see is the scale of the forces ranged around us and the beauty of things we can’t know. ‘Yet this place finds me/And forms itself again.’ The lines are from W.S. Graham’s poem ‘The Nightfishing’. He wrote it in Cornwall but was thinking of the North Sea, ‘a grey green sea, not a chocolate box sea’.
Within all the dead of
All my life I hear
My name spoken out
On the break of the surf.
I, in Time’s grace,
The grace of change, am
Cast into memory.
What a restless grace
To trace stillness on.
Eardley’s first London show opened in May 1963. She came to the city but felt ill and a doctor diagnosed a tumour on her breast. She thought little of it, telling friends she’d have it looked at back in Scotland. The cancer spread rapidly to her brain and she began to lose her sight. She died in August. She was 42. When her family went to Townhead to look at the old studio, they found a painting on the easel, two of the Samson girls in all their finery. The bulldozers were on the streets outside and the children had already gone.