The 20th century produced its fair share of brilliant artists in these isles, but there are few who so effectively capture the imagination as Joan Eardley, the Sussex-born expressionist painter of Glasgow children and north east land and seascapes who became one of Scotland's best-loved and influential artists despite her early death at the age of just 42. May 18 this year marks 100 years since she was born, and the Scottish Women in the Arts Research Network, led by curator Anne Dulau of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, with other west coast institutions at its core from Glasgow School of Art to Paisley Museum and the Scottish Womens' Library, have been planning the first major survey of her work in Glasgow for decades.

“There's been a huge interest from galleries and organisations around Scotland, too,” says Dulau, by phone, of the venture to try to mount a major retrospective of Eardley's brief but prodigious career. “It's one of the most interesting projects I've worked on.”

When Eardley's family came on board, the organisation's reach extended out further around Scotland, with galleries from Aberdeen to Dumfries expressing their intentions to mark the centenary. “We knew noone could do a big retrospective because of the circumstances, so we decided that the best thing to do would be to pool resources and try to mount events exploring Eardley from different perspectives.”

Of course, what with events this year – all nine days of it so far – being what they are, and as a curious sense of deja-vu settles over the country, even the best re-laid plans are moot, but all are determined that something will happen.

The Hunterian's major exhibition planned for July concentrates on works donated to the gallery, of which they obtain a few more every year, and the huge diversity of the collectors who have acquired Eardley's work.

“We've decided it's our priority!” says Dulau, who is determined that it will happen. In Edinburgh, the National Galleries plan to revisit their superb Eardley retrospective of a few years ago, but with more new archival material, and the fruits of new research into Eardley's methods, including her use of photography.

There will also be a new book by curator Patrick Elliott. In Dumfries, Dulau points out that the Gracefield Arts Centre has some astonishing unseen documentary photographs of and by Eardley, and on Arran, the nascent Heritage Trail will mark places of interest, from the cottage which Eardley and her painter friend, Margot Sandeman, used as a studio over the holidays as young women, to the beach on which Eardley painted an early landscape.

“I think most interesting, too, is that they're speaking to locals who knew Eardley, now, whilst they still can, whilst that knowledge is still there to tap.”


There will be an exhibition at the Scottish Gallery to coincide with the (fingers crossed) Edinburgh Festival and at Paisley Museum, there will be specialist tours of the Secret Collection store to view previously unseen early drawings made whilst Eardley was still a student. It is a wide sweep. For Eardley is still an enigma, one of those 20th century women artists – like Barbara Hepworth or Tove Jansson - whose deliberate dedication to their art despite the difficulties that women faced in being able to do so, became all-encompassing.

Eardley's influence on the generation of artists that came after her was and continues to be huge, partly because of the immediacy and insight of her vision – it does not date.

Her ability to capture character, relationships and place seemed innate, from the street kids in Townhead, “the living part of Glasgow” as she called it, where she had her studio, to the clifftops of Catterline in Aberdeenshire, where she spent her final years. “Stand at peace,” she would tell the children, serious, as she tried to get them to stop moving for long enough to sketch their essence.

But Eardley, too, seemed to stand at peace when painting, a focused, frenetic, fast-paced slapping on of paint, sketching life in simple strokes, layering on, rubbing in, scraping off. “I never seem to find I want to move,” she said in a letter to her close friend, the painter Margot Sandeman, content some years later in her cottage at Catterline, pitched at the end of a row, undisturbed by friendly neighbours.

Her large seascapes and field views belong to these final years, painted down on the shore in all weathers, her easel lugged down with the help of local fishermen. She was a brilliant master of light, but she painted the dull greys too, flashing in a streak of red, an emotion from the landscape or from the brush.

And her work constantly evolved, refined, even in that scant decade and a half. Just before her death of the breast cancer that racked her body and spread to her brain, Eardley had a breakthrough solo exhibition down in London at Gustav, Browse and Delbanco, with works in which she had begun to add elements of collage, the pickings of the Glasgow streets, from newspapers to sweet wrappers.

Outrageously, a partner at the firm picked them off, as though London, despite its own slums, its own rags, would not take to the literal pasting on of the evidence of Glasgow's poverty-struck Eastern streets. Eardley fumed, but she kept on, despite the fear of the cancer, the pain. When she died, working still, an unfinished portrait of two more Glasgow children was on her easel, the brilliance of expression and character caught in the act of creation. Some 60 years on, no-one, not even a London gallerist, would be picking bits off now.