At the start of the Second World War, Sussex-born Joan Eardley (1921-63) moved with her family to Scotland where she settled down in a well-to-do suburb north-west of Glasgow.
She studied at Glasgow School of Art and was later drawn to the dilapidated tenement blocks in Townhead. It was here in this condemned part of the city, earmarked to become a motorway interchange, that she created her famous portraits of poverty-stricken children.
During the 1950s-60s the Scottish art world was a macho place, dominated by male artists and teachers, says Guy Peploe of The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh.
“In this context Eardley remained an outsider – a young artist whose work was unconventional, bold and expressive, a painter who happened to be a woman, whose accent was English and who, whisper it, was gay”, he adds.
Though she achieved some success in her lifetime and is regarded today as a major figure in Modern British art, she slipped into obscurity after she died from cancer aged only 42.
“After her death, she was a well-kept secret up here in Scotland certainly in the 1970s and 1980s when the big exhibitions in England dried up and she became a forgotten figure”, says Peploe.
As Eardley’s agent during her lifetime and representative of her estate, The Scottish Gallery is one of the few that has championed the painter throughout.
Now, in the centenary year of Eardley’s birth, it is celebrating her life with a major exhibition in Edinburgh from July 30-August 28.
Three years in the making, the show comprises around 40 pictures drawn almost exclusively from the two main strands of the artist’s output: her stark Townhead portraits and her sea views and landscapes of rugged Catterline, a coastal village on the North Sea in Aberdeenshire where she bought a cottage in 1954.
For Peploe, Eardley’s art remains as direct and powerful as it was when she created it and describes the chief themes in her subjects as “timeless”.
“Her work explores cultural identity – the innocence of childhood, even in adversity and the destructive and regenerative power of nature; she interrogated community and nature in their most raw forms allowing us to ponder our own fragile existence”, he says.
Some of the works have been sourced specifically for the show while others come from the gallery’s existing stock.
“We are in the extraordinary position, first as agents in her lifetime and then as agents for her estate, that the majority of her work has gone through our gallery – in some cases multiple times”, says Peploe.
Despite her brief life, Eardley produced a large volume of work with around 2000 pictures left in her estate when she died.
“There was a desperate urgency to her work. It was almost as if she knew that she was not going to be the grand lady of Scottish art”, says Peploe.
Prices in the exhibition reflect her growing stature in Modern British art and have accelerated since she was given a full retrospective in 2007 at the National Galleries of Scotland. The works on paper range from £5000 to £85,000, with oils priced between £25,000 and £225,000.
Included are a clutch of significant Glasgow works such as Child and Chalked Wall, c.1959-62 and Girl with a Poke of Chips (c.1960-63) (above), the latter a largescale oil which is also signed (Eardley rarely signed her canvases unless they were exhibited).
Opportunities to acquire such works are scarce on the secondary market. According to Peploe, few of his clients buy for investment: “Eardley buyers are doing it from the heart and so they are collecting her work because they love it and want to hold on to it.”
Another “belter” says Peploe is the Catterline seascape Grey Beach and Sky (1962). At over a metre long, it is one of the largest works in the show and depicts a wild winter storm in a flurry of brushstrokes and a focused palette of greys and browns.
The show also includes Eardley’s last work, Jar of Summer Flowers (1963), which contains wildflowers and grasses gathered from Catterline’s fields pressed into the impasto oil. Despite cancer, Eardley kept on painting and moved to a more domestic subject matter when she could no longer go outside.
Jar of Summer Flowers is one of a group made in the summer of 1963 before she was admitted to hospital in Killearn where she died on August 16.