As one of Scotland's most celebrated artists, Joan Eardley is best known for her depictions of Glasgow’s street children and of Scotland’s North East coastline. 

Now a new exhibition is offering a rare glimpse into her formative years, showing how her time as a student at The Glasgow School of Art and early experiences from 1940 to 1950 informed the direction and development of her later work. 

‘Early Eardley: selected works 1940-1950’ introduces audiences to the artist as a young woman, still learning, experimenting and developing as a painter. The drawings demonstrate Eardley’s emerging talent and the range and breadth of her interests. 

The works are drawn from The Glasgow School of Art Archives & Collections, Lillie Art Gallery, City Art Centre, Gerber Fine Art and Joan Eardley Estate.

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The works include life drawings made while Eardley was a student in the 1940s, as well as drawings made while undertaking The Glasgow School of Art and RSA Carnegie Travelling Scholarships in Italy and France in 1948 and 49. 

Some of these drawings – of people, landscape and architecture – are also shown along with the scholarship report Eardley was required to submit to the then Director of The Glasgow School of Art, Douglas Percy Bliss, and other correspondence.

The exhibition also includes a small group of sketches from Lincolnshire made during a period spent in the county to undertake a mural commission at a school in 1946 and two drawings, from The Glasgow School of Art's Archives & Collections, of scenes from Glasgow’s famous Barras Market. 

2023 marks 80 years since Eardley’s graduation from The Glasgow School of Art, and to commemorate the anniversary, a rarely-seen prize book , which was presented to Eardley at her diploma ceremony in 1943 for best portrait of the year, has been loaned to the exhibition by Eardley’s niece, Anne Morrison-Hudson.

The Herald: Covered Market, Glasgow by Joan Eardley (c1945-49) © Estate of Joan Eardley Covered Market, Glasgow by Joan Eardley (c1945-49) © Estate of Joan Eardley (Image: Colin Mearns)

Attending the launch of the exhibition, Ms Morrison-Hudson, who is also custodian of the Eardley Estate, told The Herald: “It’s lovely to see all these works because the ones that were gifted by my mother to the Art School many years ago are not often on display. It’s wonderful to be able to see them alongside works from similar times and places. When you get to see the detail of the drawings you appreciate how fabulous a draughtsman she was. She could capture all these things.”

Ms Morrison-Hudson's daughter Claire Mould, who also attended the launch, added: “It feels like it’s been a long time coming. The Glasgow School of Art have been hoping to do this exhibition for a long time. It’s great that they’ve managed to pull it all together at last, and given the opportunity for people to come and actually see these works. They are just never on show collectively.

“The exhibition shows very much that even at that time, she liked that mix of things - from people sitting and people working to animals, landscapes, and to the properties that people lived in. It shows the themes that she carried on with throughout her life.”

The exhibition was co-curated by Jenny Brownrigg, Exhibitions Director at The Glasgow School of Art, and Prof Susannah Thompson, Head of Doctoral Studies at The Glasgow School of Art.

Ms Brownrigg told The Herald: “One of my fellow staff members said that the exhibition, which focuses on Joan Eardley’s early work from 1940 to 1950, is like ‘a missing piece of the jigsaw’. 

“A lot of the exhibitions about Joan Eardley, and what she is known for, is obviously her work on landscapes, cattle, Glasgow and the children that she painted, whereas this exhibition offers the opportunity to look at this early period, which takes in her time as a student at The Glasgow School of Art and her travelling scholarship which she did after she graduated. It also takes in key moments such as when she used to spend summers in Arran. We’ve also got some drawings that she did in Lincolnshire, where she was invited in 1946 to do a mural for a girls’ school. 

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“I think this exhibition offers the opportunity just to see her early work and to see these strong themes starting - her interest in landscapes and people. It also has a few surprises in it as well." 

In respect of the exhibition being held on the 80th anniversary since Eardley’s graduation, Ms Brownrigg added:  “I think it’s really important that we celebrate the alumni that we have at The Glasgow School of Art and in particular, a chance to celebrate an artist - a woman artist who was a painter in Scotland

“We discovered this is 80 years since she graduated with her diploma in 1943 from GSA, so it’s wonderful that her work has come full circle. She did a solo exhibition in the Mackintosh museum of her work from the travelling scholarships and that was in 1949, so we have the list of the 43 works that she exhibited at the Mackintosh museum, some of which we have here in the exhibition. Again, that’s kind of full circle.”

The exhibition, Joan Eardley 'Early Eardley: selected works 1940-1950’, runs at the Reid Gallery and Window on Heritage Reid Building, The Glasgow School of Art, until December 16. Admission is free.