By John-Paul Holden

She is one of the most original and fearless artists ever to emerge from Scotland.

Venturing out into Glasgow’s Townhead with its soon-to-be-demolished slum tenements, Joan Eardley befriended and painted local children, capturing their vitality amid the crushing poverty and decay that were endemic after the Second World War.

Up in the coastal village of Catterline, Aberdeenshire, where she dedicated herself to depicting the exposed, storm-lashed land and seascapes close to her tiny cottage, Eardley was known for using rope, G-clamps and even an anchor to secure the hardboard on which she worked, gaining the admiration of local fishermen in the process.

Though her life was cut short by breast cancer, the Sussex-born artist is today revered as one of the key figures of British expressionism – a giant to rank alongside the likes of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.

Next year marks 100 years since Eardley’s birth – but, despite her towering influence, it appears no major gallery north or south of the Border is planning a large-scale exhibition of her work.

Now there is a growing clamour for organisations such as the Tate and Glasgow Life – which runs venues including Kelvingrove and the Gallery of Modern Art in Scotland’s largest city – to do more.

“I think it’s really pretty awful that Glasgow is, on a big scale, missing the opportunity to celebrate the work of Joan Eardley,” said Scottish artist and broadcaster Lachlan Goudie. “She is the painter of Glasgow par excellence. There is no other artist who documented Glasgow so extraordinarily during that period. It’s not enough for Scottish art and big institutions like Kelvingrove to be limited to the most popular names like the Glasgow Boys, Jack Vettriano or Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

“People are very familiar with the work of the Glasgow Boys. But Glasgow has other painters. There’s a Glasgow Girl. She’s not even Scottish but came here and fell in love with the city to such an extent that she painted it throughout her short life. Eardley is a hugely important British artist and she should have a major exhibition in a British institution of note, like the Tate.”

Eardley was born on May 18, 1921, on a dairy farm in Warnham, Sussex. Her family later moved to London and then, in 1939, amid the growing threat of war, to Bearsden.

The following year, she began her studies at Glasgow School of Art and proved fearless in her pursuit of subjects to paint. Her wanderings brought her to impoverished Townhead in the northeast of the city, where she established a studio. The paintings Eardley did there – particularly her famous portraits of the Samson children – are considered landmarks of 20th-century art.

For her niece Anne Morrison, a Bearsden-based ceramicist, Eardley’s relationship with an urban district which was facing the demolition ball is an example of just how daring and exceptional she was.

“Townhead was just not the area that you would go to – I was kept well away from it,” she said. “Even my brother, who was a couple of years older, said he had never been up there either. It was not the place to be. It was just the poverty and seeing what that part of Glasgow looked like. Middle-class kids just did not get taken there.

“She actually caught something that was disappearing at the time, as the buildings were getting knocked down and people were getting moved elsewhere. It captured something of the city and the children there. It’s not glorifying it but it’s capturing it in a very human way.”

Morrison suggested that the lack of a major event to mark the centenary of Eardley’s birth could have something to do with the Scottishness of her work.

“It does seem right to have a celebration of her work but it does not seem to be happening,” she added. “Her name gets forgotten. She has not had the recognition at a UK level that she should. That’s the trouble. She’s a Scottish artist and she gets put aside because her subjects were Scottish as well.”

Laura Cumming, art critic for The Observer, described Eardley as “one of the deepest landscape artists who ever lived, and among the most humanitarian painters of men, women and especially children”.

She added: “Every opportunity to see her work is precious – anywhere at all.

“There have been shows in Scotland, the last that I remember was in 2017. She deserves many more, and so the ideal would be a touring show that took in London, presenting her work throughout the United Kingdom to a new generation. Next year must not be allowed to slip by without a full-scale retrospective of her powerfully stirring and beautiful work.”

Arts journalist Jan Patience said: “The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh has done a power of work to cement her reputation with two major shows in the last 13 years, but there has been no major Eardley show for years in Glasgow, the city she called home. I believe the last one was in what was then called The Third Eye Centre in the 1970s.

“An Eardley show in Glasgow would attract visitors in their thousands and a no-show in her centenary year shows a real lack of vision.”

Local authorities in Scotland’s largest cities said events were being organised or considered to mark the anniversary.

A spokeswoman for Glasgow Life said: “As one of Scotland’s most popular 20th-century artists we anticipate a small programme of events to mark Joan Eardley’s centenary.

“We are pleased to have a small number of her drawings and paintings in our collection, which includes the much-loved oil Glasgow Kids, a Saturday Matinée Picture Queue, on show in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. However, we do not hold the breadth of works required to stage a standalone exhibition.”

A spokesman for Edinburgh City Council, which runs the capital’s City Art Centre, said: “I can confirm that we have no plans to mark the centenary of Joan Eardley’s birth with a temporary exhibition. However, we still haven’t finalised our events programme for 2021, so an appreciation of Eardley’s work could well feature in that.”

An Aberdeen City Council spokeswoman said: “Eardley’s work is showcased as one of the Our Collection highlights in Gallery 1 – Collecting Art and her work can be seen throughout the collections galleries. A number of the oils we own are on display, including a powerful seascape painted at Catterline.

“The 2021 centenary of Joan Eardley’s birth presents a welcome opportunity for us to celebrate the artist’s strong connection with the northeast of Scotland in a number of ways.”

A spokesman for Leisure and Culture Dundee, which runs the McManus Gallery and Museum, said: “We have no current plans to mark the Joan Eardley centenary next year.”

A spokesman for the National Galleries of Scotland said: “The National Galleries celebrated the life and work of Joan Eardley in a comprehensive exhibition just three years ago, and the exhibition’s curator Patrick Elliott, a leading expert on Eardley, is writing a book on Eardley and Catterline as part of the centenary celebrations. All future plans, including publication of this book and our exhibition schedule, are subject to review due to the ongoing health crisis. However, we do intend on marking Eardley’s centenary next summer, in one form or another.”

The Tate galleries declined to comment.