Joan Eardley: Intrepid Painter Among the Elements of Nature
SOME painters are not satisfied with paintings that just reflect the world around them, that pick up echoes, memories, or afterimages. They see instead an intense confronting of their ``art'' with ``nature.'' In its own, different terms, the painting is to be on equal footing with its subject. Its very means, the strength of its tone and color, the movement of its brushmarks, are to contain and convey not only something looked at, but something directly experienced. The British painter Joan Eardley (born in England in 1921 of a Scottish mother and English father, her career developing in Scotland) was such a painter. This is particularly true in her land- and seascapes - though she was also an expressively observant painter of urban people and environment - and photos of her at work, as well as her own descriptions in letters, show how far she was prepared to go to paint from nature, regardless of weather.Skip to next paragraph
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It was, in fact, elemental weather that she relished as a painter, and she chose in the last seven or eight years of her life to settle and work in a coastal village of northeast Scotland called Catterline, where she could pit herself and her art against the wild, changeable conditions of wind, sunshine, snow, or storm.
If, however, it was a rivalry between art and nature, it was the rivalry of a latter-day Romantic in love with nature in all its moods, not antagonistic toward it. The paintings that resulted - like this winter sea, and the field of red earth with sheep let loose in it to feed on the ``neeps,'' or turnips - are affirmative works expressing relish, excitement, and delight, not despair or destructiveness.
In fact the ``Field with Sheep and Neeps,'' which is one of several paintings of the subject she produced at Catterline following a drawing she made on her first visit to the place in 1950, is a tranquil, glowing painting. It is boldly executed, certainly, but the huddled sheep bundles, summarily outlined, the turnips lying haphazardly like stones where they had been dug, and the warm accents of the sky harmonizing with the red-orange of the ground, all point to an almost cozy affection for the Catterline landscape. She had, on her first encounter with the place, written to her mother: ``It really is a lovely country. I have quite fallen for it - quite different from the west, more rolling, with lovely reddish earth.''
Her paintings of the sea at Catterline, however, show another order of celebration and inspiration. The sea brought out in her art a sense of color that is rich and original. It is extraordinarily in tune with her sense of tone or light and dark. Flashes and surges of brilliance contrast vividly with a broad paint spread of looming, unreachable, deep colors - dark grays, heavy browns, storm blues. The brighter pigments suggest light, but also express the crash and clash of the ocean's frothing wildness. The darker colors suggest impenetrable shadow, but also express the jagged durability of rock and the depth of the sea.
It's as if Eardley wanted to see how intense and expressive painting could be if she worked virtually immersed in the elements rather than removed from them in the calm of the studio. With an easel anchored by rocks or even by an actual anchor, she would ``pour her paint on with tremendous freedom and power,'' according to a Catterline friend, Annette Stephen, who has also said that at Catterline, ``sometimes it is like living in a Turner painting.''