THE clifftop cottage which sparked Joan Eardley's love affair with an east coast village has been restored to provide other artists with the opportunity to paint in the setting which inspired her.

The building in the village of Catterline has been refurbished and offered to painters across the spectrum from those already established to students and those just beginning their careers.

The scenic beauty of the small village in Lewis Grassic Gibbon country, near Stonehaven, 20 miles south of Aberdeen, had already attracted artists like James McBey and American Norman Rockwell when a bad dose of mumps led Eardley there.

In 1951 Annette Soper, an art teacher and talented water colour painter who lived in Stonehaven, managed to persuade the manager of the former Gaumont cinema in Aberdeen's Union Street to give over part of his foyer for exhibitions.

On the basis of a review in The Glasgow Herald, she decided to invite Eardley, who she had never met and of who she knew little, to stage the third exhibition in the cinema. She accepted and while staying with Soper during the exhibition contracted mumps and was unable to return to


As part of her recuperation Soper took her to her favourite family picnic spot at Catterline. There they saw the coastguard's watch house - the watchy - which had lain empty for two or three years and both thought what a magnificent studio it would make.

The then penniless Eardley could do nothing to fulfil its promise but Soper bought the cottage - for less than (pounds) 50 - and invited Eardley to use it as she wished.

With the help of her friend Angus Neil, a trained joiner with a love of painting, Eardley improved conditions and spent more and more time in Catterline while retaining her studio in Glasgow.

She eventually bought her own cottage, one of three homes she owned in Catterline at times, and such was her love of the village that after her death from breast cancer at the age of 42 in 1963 her ashes were scattered on the rocky beach below the ''watchy''.

Annette Soper, later Stephen by marriage, retained the ''watchy'' until her death in 1991 aged 80.

She bequeathed it to Lil Neilson, another artist, who had met Eardley at Hospitalfield School of Art, a post graduate summer school in Arbroath where Eardley was lecturing.

Eardley invited her to use the studio and when she discovered Catterline she never left it and worked in the village and at the watchy until her death in 1998.

''Annette left the house to Lil on the understanding that it should continue to be used as a studio,'' said Anne Steed, the present owner who was left it by Neilsen. ''Lil also asked me to make sure it continued to be used as a studio.''

Since 1998 she and her husband, with the help of local builders, have restored the cottage, including re-roofing it and rebuilding the lean-to at the end. Heating is provided by a stove and the power for lighting is generated by a small wind turbine.

To celebrate the completion of the work and to mark Catterline's significance in the art world Mrs Steed and four art loving friends from the village organised the first Catterline arts festival last month.

More than a dozen villagers agreed to open the doors of their houses for a weekend to allow artists to exhibit their work and more than 1000 visitors came to make it an outstanding success. They now plan to make it biennial.

For the first year Mrs Steed has allocated the studio for a month at a time to artists and among those who is to take advantage is Carolyn Couper, Annette Stephen's great niece.

''She was just starting her training when Annette died,'' said Mrs Steed.

Joan Eardley RSA (1921-1963)

Born in Warnham, Sussex in 1921 but considered herself Scottish.

She studied at Goldsmith's College of Art in London and in 1940 moved to Glasgow to

enrol in the Glasgow School of Art.

Winning prizes, she travelled to France and Italy on a Carnegie bursary, and began to absorb the influences of Van Gogh and others.

She returned to her studio at Cochrane Street, Glasgow, and began to sketch and paint the tenement life nearby.

Her studio became so well-known that local children came to pose for sketches and photographs.

In 1951 she visited the fishing village of Catterline, Kincardineshire and fell in love with the place.

After that she divided her time between Glasgow (where she painted kitchen sink subjects, particularly the local street urchins) and Catterline.

Following her early death from breast cancer in 1963, her ashes were scattered on the beach at Catterline.

Since her death Eardley has become one of Scotland's best-known painters with her perceptive paintings of Glasgow street children and her almost abstract seascapes at Catterline widely recognised.

Her work is well represented in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh and due to her early death, is sought keenly by collectors.