Biography, Blog, Blog and News

‘See her when she is free…’ Celebrating Joan Eardley for LGBT History Month – Kirsten MacQuarrie

Image: Joan Eardley, by Kirsten MacQuarrie.

In 2021, Scotland celebrated the centenary of one of our boldest, bravest and most innovative artists: Joan Eardley (1921–1963). Whether literally risking life and limb to capture the fearsome storms that ravaged the remote coastal village of Catterline or bringing warmth and compassion to the crooked smiles of her ‘wee’ Glasgow urchins, Joan’s art was imbued with a rare, raw authenticity, and that courage extended to her personal life too. Although seldom acknowledged in lists of LGBT+ pioneers, Joan lived privately yet unapologetically as a lesbian in socially conservative mid-century Scotland, and her contribution to Scottish creativity is certainly worth celebrating this LGBT History Month. To me, and countless others, her tragically short life is a testament to the subtle yet transformative power of being true to one’s self.

Remarkably for an icon of Scottish art, Joan Eardley was actually born in Sussex, on her father’s dairy farm on 18th May 1921, before moving aged five with her mother and sister to her grandmother’s home in Blackheath, London. Haunted by the horrors of the First World War and suffering from what might now be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Joan’s father took his own life in 1929. Similar mental health struggles caused by conflict would later afflict Joan’s close friend in adulthood, fellow artist Angus Neil. Shortly after World War Two was declared, she and the rest of her family moved to Scotland, her mother’s birthplace: a fateful homecoming that allowed Joan to attend the internationally renowned Glasgow School of Art (GSA).

GSA was and continues to be a cradle for new generations of Scotland’s artistic avant-garde. Earlier in the century the school had nurtured the blossoming careers of ‘Glasgow Girls’ including Margaret and Frances Macdonald, Jessie M. King and Bessie MacNicol. Joan’s own studies opened up the world for her, artistically and geographically–her 1949 GSA travelling scholarship took her to France and Italy–and Glasgow was also where she set up her own studio: first in a Cochrane Street attic, then at the corner of St James Road in Townhead. Living conditions in the post-war city’s slum tenements were notoriously bleak, with thousands of families suffering severe deprivation whilst crammed together in insanitary, bombed-damaged buildings. Yet without exception, Joan’s depictions of the community around her were invested with unprecedented empathy and respect. As Edwin Morgan later wrote in ‘Flood Tide’, a poem inspired by and dedicated to Joan:

‘Not for this artist the surge and glitter of salons,

Clutch of a sherry or making polite conversation.

See her when she is free…

Humming as she recalls the wild shy boys

She sketched in the city…’

In particular, the ten children of the local Samson family inspired Joan to create unforgettable pastel-on-paper portraits, illustrating the youngsters’ dirt-smudged faces and unruly straw-like hair in ways that never shied from the harsh realities of poverty yet still let the children’s impish vitality shine through.

‘They just let out all their life and energy…and I just watch them and try to think about them in painterly terms…’ Joan reflected for a rare taped interview in the early 1960s. ‘They are Glasgow–this richness that Glasgow has–I hope it will always have–a living thing, an intense quality…’[1]

‘She was very, very gentle… very quiet spoken…’ members of the Samson family recollected for filmmaker John Archer in 2010. ‘She was very nice.’[2]

Unassuming and private, Joan’s natural reserve–coupled with the misogynistic and homophobic conventions of the society she lived in–meant that today her romantic relationships can be difficult to distinguish from friendships, even though Joan herself was quietly comfortable in her sexuality (noting in a 1952 letter that ‘being a lesbian itself isn’t a thing to worry me’).[3] One important presence in Joan’s life from her GSA days was the artist Margot Sandeman, and she also formed a close bond with Audrey Walker, a married photographer to whom we owe most of the extant pictures of Joan (including several showing her zipping around Catterline on her Vespa!). Another relationship of note, rooted in Catterline’s rugged yet artistically rewarding soil, was that Joan shared with Lil Neilson, a young artist seventeen years her junior. Having met at Hospitalfield Summer School when Joan was a visiting tutor, Lil was profoundly inspired by the landscape that had captured Joan’s heart, later making her own home at Catterline too. Their time together was the inspiration for my short story Easel at the Ocean’s Edge, which is part of the exhibition reading material at Glasgow Women’s Library Joan Eardley: A Centenary of Life and Landscapes.[4]

A liminal spot between land and sea, Catterline represented a point in Joan’s life poised on the cusp of lasting personal happiness and elevated professional triumph. With a show planned for New York, she stood on the brink of international acclaim: creating canvas after canvas of viscerally expressive, almost abstract art that evoked the primeval power of her beloved coastline, to the extent of even embedding sand and sea grass debris directly into the paint. As an artist and as a woman, Joan’s self-contained inner strength had never been more evident, and that knowledge makes the final chapter of her life all the more tragic. In 1962, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, its aggressive spread to her brain going unchecked by the basic, brutal treatments available at the time. Unable to paint outdoors yet driven to produce beautiful still life works of wildflowers brought inside, Joan was nursed by Lil and other friends before being admitted to Killearn Hospital. She passed away on 16 August 1963 at the age of just forty-two.

‘All becomes art, and as if it was incensed

By the painter’s brush the sea growls up

In a white flood.

The artist’s cup

Is overflowing with what she dares

To think is joy…’

Edwin Morgan, ‘Flood Tide’, 2005

For Joan, art was all, and her private life was–indeed, it had to be–just that: private. Yet as a Scottish lesbian creative myself, I find in Joan’s story a moving illustration of what it is to face each day, and each storm, with courage. Never overtly ‘queer’, her work has often been overlooked in LGBT histories, but in the heartfelt humanity of her Glasgow children’s portraits and unvarnished, grounded responsiveness of her Catterline seascapes, the radical message ripples out from Joan’s art that all deserve dignity. All are natural. All belong. She had no need to shout her thoughts on sexuality, womanhood, fairness and freedom. They were there. They are there, in every mark she made.

Kirsten MacQuarrie is a writer in Scotland. Her work has been published by New Writing Scotland, The Scottish Poetry Library, Glasgow Women’s Library, Gutter Magazine, Scottish PEN, the Federation of Writers Scotland and others. She has been shortlisted for a Vogue Magazine Young Talent Award, twice winner of the Glasgow Women’s Library Poetry Prize and was a Non-Fiction judge for the Scottish National Book Awards 2021. Her first novel was Ellen and Arbor (2020) and her second will be The Rowan Tree, inspired by the true story of the ‘some-requited’ love between poet Kathleen Raine and author-naturalist Gavin Maxwell.


Joan Eardley’s cottage at Catterline (image credit: wikicommons).

Further Reading

Andreae, Christopher (2013). Joan Eardley. Lund Humphries: London.

Elliott, Patrick with Galastro, Anne (2016). Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place. National Galleries of Scotland: Edinburgh.

Elliott, Patrick (2021). Joan Eardley: Land and Sea – A Life in Catterline. National Galleries of Scotland: Edinburgh.

Pearson, Fiona (2007). Joan Eardley. National Galleries of Scotland: Edinburgh.

The Scottish Gallery (2021). Joan Eardley Centenary 1921-2021. The Scottish Gallery: Edinburgh.

[1] Cited in Joan Eardley by Fiona Pearson (National Galleries of Scotland: Edinburgh, 2007). Also in Joan Eardley Centenary 1921-2021 (The Scottish Gallery: Edinburgh, 2021).

[2] Cited in Joan Eardley by Christopher Andreae (Lund Humphries: London, 2013). Also in Joan Eardley, The Scottish Gallery, 2021.

[3] ‘Joan Eardley deserves to be ranked alongside Bacon and de Kooning’ by Claudia Massie, The Spectator, 17th July 2021.

[4] The exhibition will run until 12th February 2022. Easel at the Ocean’s Edge can also be read online.