Joan Eardley: Intrepid Painter Among the Elements of Nature

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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.

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.

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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.''

Fiona Pearson describes Eardley painting outdoors by the ocean or in the fields at Catterline as follows: ``She would stand for hours in one place and leave the works outdoors overnight for the weather to play its part.... The bright colors were ground and mixed in the cottage and once out of doors they were applied quickly with a palette knife, house painter's brushes and a range of smaller brushes and rags.''

At times Eardley also used her fingers. And sometimes she incorporated found objects, like grasses or pieces of newspaper, into her paint in her urgent need to bring the exuberant moil of her picture surface to a sufficient degree of tangible reality and visual power.

A description in the most recent and, to date, most thorough book on Eardley (by Cordelia Oliver) is quoted from one of Eardley's letters (dated February 1958), giving an idea of the difficulties she sometimes faced as a painter in the teeth of appalling weather. It would have been easier sometimes to have been a photographer, she implies; and yet she achieved things with the imaginative freedom and gestural ebullience of paint and brush that were way beyond the capacity of photography.

``This morning there was a gentle wind from the south-east bringing little showers of snow every now and again. You could watch them several miles away coming up across the sea. And in between the snow showers was something of quietness and gentle greyness - so I was able to paint fairly peacefully. There was even a moment - half an hour or so - of bright sunshine and complete quietness so that the sun felt almost scorching in its heat reflected off the snow. Then, quite suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, the wind veered to the east with no warning - a gale force wind. My painting and me were enveloped in snow ... snow whirling everywhere from off the ground. That was the end of my day's work.... Certainly the coldest and worst day of the year - a most exciting day, too, with every variation of colour - black sea, bright green striped sea, brown sea, yellow sea and no sea. Extraordinary strong cloud formations, too. Definitely a photographer's day. I had to stick to one mood and position when all the time I was itching to turn hither and thither and run hither and thither.''

Eardley claimed, not without justice, that nature was her teacher when she painted, and not the work of other artists. ``I never look at other painting at all.'' But no artist is an island. She had been a student at art schools. She had traveled in Europe, visited museums, collected post card reproductions of Vel'azquez, Goya, Titian, Blake.

Eardley admirers have rightly seen the clear influence of Van Gogh, and pointed to similarities between her and such a whirlwind, painterly Expressionist as Soutine. She also was well aware of the development of the Abstract Expressionism of such painters as Pollock and Kline.

Eardley, however, absorbed the inspiration of others into her own assured works, and produced paintings that make a distinctive contribution to the expressionist-romantic strain of painting. This has its roots in the 19th century but it continues to be revived and revitalized throughout our century whenever and wherever an artist of determined independence, conviction, and ability, like Joan Eardley, surfaces.

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