Looking at Joan Eardley’s paintings of the sea and fields at Catterline, you can feel the weather. You sense the wind on your cheek and smell the salt air. Some of Eardley’s paintings and drawings made in this tiny fishing village on the north east coast of Scotland in the 1950s are on show at the Scottish National Gallery (Modern One) to celebrate the centenary of her birth in 1921. I find Eardley such an inspiring figure that I took the train up to Edinburgh to see the show.
Eardley was tough. After studying at Glasgow School of Art and working as a joiner’s labourer in a boat-building yard during WWII, she rented a studio in Townend, Glasgow, where she painted the children from the local tenements, paying them in buns to sit (or rather, stand) for their portraits. She had already begun to exhibit and was achieving recognition when she discovered Catterline; from the early 1950s she spent increasing periods of time there, renting and eventually buying a home in the row of two-room cottages that ran along the cliff top. The first place she stayed in had no electricity or running water.
Initially Eardley spent her days in the fields behind the village, drawing and painting again and again the sharply descending line of buildings and the wind-blown fields they look out over. The sea, she thought, was too difficult a subject. But after some time she began to take her easel and paints to the beach. A black and white photo taken in 1960 shows her standing in boots, trousers, kagoul and hat, facing a large board set up on the shingle a few yards from the water’s edge. Eardley’s motorbike is parked to one side.
One of her best known paintings, The Wave, forms the centre piece of the exhibition. I was mesmerized by the colour of the sky, an opaque yet energizing petrol blue with a tinge of something warmer. The wave itself is both terrifying and beautiful, stretching across the picture with a bizarre uniformity. A dark block of colour below it suggests the pier, although I found it hard to read and a bit distracting. In another painting, a hint of yellow and white suggests the presence of a fisherman in waterproofs among a group of boats that are only just discernible in a glowering light on the dark foreshore.
In the second room, Winter in Catterline held my attention for longer than any other work. This shows the row of cliff top cottages from a snow-dusted track below them on the landward side of the village, under a sky so earthily dark that I wondered if the painting was made at night. Again, the colour of the sky was extraordinarily rich and created a sense of calm at the core of the painting, against which the chaotic angle of the cottages and the rough ground of the fields were palpably convincing. Looking at the various small drawings, many of them worked on an assembly of two or three scraps of paper, I got the sense that Eardley drew that row of cottages again and again, becoming utterly familiar with the way the walls and the stones were held together.
The show runs till 21 August.