Joan Eardley RSA at 100

Posted on 18 May 2021

As part of national celebrations [] to mark the Centenary (on 18 May) of the birth in 1921 of Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley RSA, Robin H Rodger, from the RSA’s collections team considers her position with specific regard to the Royal Scottish Academy.


The tragedy of Joan Eardley is that 58 years have now passed since she was so cruelly snatched just as her star was beginning to truly shine. 58 years in death outstrips the 42 she enjoyed in life, half of which witnessed some of the most distinctive and unique images ever created in Scotland.

An immensely shy woman, Eardley was not a native Scot, though her mother was. It was her displacement due to the Second World War which saw the young Joan move with her grandmother to relatives in Auchterarder, and subsequently to Bearsden (once her mother and sister were able to join them). Thus she became one of Scotland’s best loved modern artists.

Eardley first had a work selected for inclusion in the Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition in 1943. In those days there was no Student Exhibition and New Contemporaries was an even longer way into the future. Had either existed her inclusion would surely have been guaranteed.


Joan Eardley RSA (1921-63), Corrie, pen and ink wash with body colour on paper, around 1948-50; RSA Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund purchase, 1950 [1992.221] © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021


She had to wait a further 7 years for her next acceptance. This was a drawing of Corrie on the Isle of Arran. Not only was it exhibited, the drawing was also considered important enough to be purchased for the RSA Collections. It remains one of the first of her works to be acquired for a public collection. In typical West coast fashion, her earliest summer holidays spent in Scotland had taken Eardley “doon the watter” to the Isle of Arran. Dominated by the rising peaks of Goatfell, the island had been the lure of many members of the Royal Scottish Academy; from Waller Hugh Paton RSA (1828-95) in the 19th century, to John MacLauchlan Milne RSA (1885-1957) in the 20th. It was whilst convalescing from a bout of the mumps later in life that she would discover Scotland’s East coast, settling at Catterline to the south of Stonehaven in 1954.

Eardley did not have her struggles to seek. She was displaced by war and was denied her father through suicide driven by PTSD (having been gassed during the First World War). She was shy, she was gay, and ultimately she was diagnosed with the breast cancer that would kill her. Less strong characters would have crumpled, but Eardley channelled whatever negativity any of these held for her into a fervent and prolific two decades of creativity.

Whilst still living at Bearsden, Eardley enrolled at Glasgow School of Art where the Head of Painting and Drawing, Hugh Adam Crawford RSA (1899-1982) was not slow to recognize, and critically, to encourage, her prodigious talent. That grounding undoubtedly helped her stand her ground against the opposition she faced whilst a postgraduate student at Hospitalfield House, on the outskirts of Arbroath, from its Warden at the time, James Cowie RSA (1886-1956). Cowie, who served as the Secretary of the Academy from 1948-1952, was firmly rooted in Western Art, with more than a passing allegiance to the masters of the Renaissance. Whilst the metaphysical aspect to some of Cowie’s later works reveals an awareness of the Surrealists, he was totally abhorred by much post-war avant-garde painting with its apparent abandonment of the basic principles of good draughtsmanship, colour harmony and painterly finish. Cowie found much to displease him in Eardley’s work. She spent 6 months at Hospitalfield, between April and September 1947, but stood up for herself.


David Macbeth Sutherland RSA (1883-1973), Portrait of James Cowie, oil on canvas, 1935, Gifted by Dorothy Johnstone ARSA, 1975 [1993.031] © the artist’s estate


Eardley’s name first appears in the RSA Annual Reports in 1948. Thirty students from the Scottish Art Colleges submitted works for the competition in the School of Painting, twelve of whom were short listed for stage two. After these interviews 8 were awarded prizes, with Eardley sharing the top prize; the RSA Carnegie Travelling Scholarship with fellow GSA student Margaret Gillon. The Adjudication Committee comprised Alick Riddell Sturrock RSA (1885-1953), Anne Redpath RSA (1895-1965) and Josephine Haswell Miller ARSA (1890-1975). The prizes were divided equally between male and female students.[RSA Annual Report 1948, notice VII, p.5, RSA Archives]

The Carnegie Travelling Scholarship had been established by Sir Andrew and Lady Carnegie in 1903 when they gifted a substantial quantity of shares in one of Carnegie’s iron companies to the Academy. The interest accruing annually was to be awarded as a cash prize to facilitate travel to anywhere in the world to visit the major public art collections. The Award was traditionally paid in instalments and required the recipients to make regular reports back to the President and Council of the Academy as to the progress of their travels and of their own art. Sadly very few of these accounts have survived, and today there is nothing in the RSA Archives that provides Eardley’s first-hand account of what she did and saw. Happily however her letters home to her family have, and they share the excitement which she experienced during her 8 month stay. This lasted from September 1948 until May 1949. Following the end of the Second World War just three years earlier, Eardley had spent the freezing winter of 1946/47 in Bearsden, and would have been aware of the terrible floods which hit Scotland in August 1948. Her trip to Italy must have seemed truly otherworldly, and no wonder the colours which she encountered there had such an impact on her; “Pale pink, pale blue and yellowy and white right into the distance.” she wrote.


Joan Eardley, A Carter and his Horse, oil on canvas, about 1952, Government Art Collection, Purchased 1952.      © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021


In 1952 Joan was the recipient of the RSA Award for her painting “A Carter and his Horse” in the RSA Annual Exhibition. The prizes were allocated by the President (Sir William Oliphant Hutchison PRSA (1889-1970)) and the members of the Committee of Arrangements. There were three Committee members with responsibility for Painting; William Wilson RSA (1905-72), Donald Macbeth Sutherland RSA (1883-1973) and Donald Moodie ARSA (1892-1963). The Guthrie Prize that year went to a future woman member of the Academy Ellen Malcolm [RSA] (1923-2003),  whilst among the works added to the Academy’s Collection via the Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund was “The Skipping Rope,” oil on canvas, by Anne Bannatyne Finlay (1898-1963) a work far removed from Eardley’s own depictions of the working class children she encountered in Glasgow.


Guthrie Prize winner and future RSA Academician Ellen Malcolm, drawing


Anne Bannatyne Finlay (1898-1963), The Skipping Rope, oil on canvas,  Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund purchase, 1952 [1993.083] © the artist’s estate


At a General Assembly on 16 March 1955 Eardley became the youngest woman elected to the rank of Associate member of the Royal Scottish Academy. That record would be broken when Elizabeth Violet Blackadder RSA (b.1931) was elected to the same rank just 5 weeks after Eardley was elevated to full Academician in 1963, and has been broken several times since. The architect Professor Sir Albert Edward Richardson, PRA, FSA, FRIBA (1880-1964), was elected an Honorary Member at the same meeting which saw Eardley’s election.

Like most members, this was not the first time that Eardley’s name had been put forward. As early as 1950 Sir William George Gillies RSA (1898-1973) had proposed her, with Robert Heriot Westwood ARSA (1905-62) seconding. In 1952 she was proposed again, this time by her former GSA Tutor Hugh Adam Crawford RSA (by then Head of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen) seconded by David Abercromby Donaldson ARSA (1916-96) then on the GSA painting staff; and also by Margaret Hislop ARSA (1895-1972) seconded by Mary Armour ARSA (1902-2000). Her nominations must have remained valid for the 1955 election.


Mary Armour RSA in her Academician’s Robes


At the Assembly of Academicians held in March 1960 Eardley was one of the four Members elected as the Adjudicators for the RSA School of Painting Competition, twelve years after she had been a prize-winner in the same competition. Her fellow judges were Adam Bruce Thomson RSA (1885-1976) the Convenor, William Wilson RSA (1905-72) and the sculptor Thomas Whalen RSA (1903-75). She was elected to the same position again the following year, serving this time with Donald Macbeth Sutherland RSA (1883-1973), Stanley Cursiter RSA (1887-1976), and Thomas Whalen RSA (1903-75).

The next time Eardley’s name appeared in the RSA Annual Reports was in 1962 to record the purchase for the RSA Collections of her oil painting “A Field by the Sea – Summer” from the RSA Annual Exhibition, through the Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund. This work had been painted in the coastal village of Catterline on the East coast just south of Stonehaven. Eardley had discovered the village whilst she was recuperating from a bout of the mumps in 1950. She produced her first work there in 1952 and in 1954 moved into a studio in a converted cottage in the village. It was to remain her base, and the part of Scotland most closely associated with her work, for the rest of her short life.


Joan Eardley RSA, A Field by the Sea – Summer, oil on board, around 1962, RSA Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund purchase, 1962 [2006.036] © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021


In this work Eardley captures a farmer’s field in the height of summer. She was not the first Member of the Academy, and nor was she the last, to be so inspired. The painting is a vibrant cocophony of colours and gestural brushstrokes which evoke the field, hedgerow, and bushes. It is one of a series of clifftop field scenes which she painted about this time, with other examples in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Hunterian Art Gallery, City Art Centre, McManus Galleries Dundee, and Gracefield Arts Centre.


Audrey Walker, Joan Eardley at Catterline, b&w photograph, RSA Archives © Audrey Walker


Compositionally it is very closely related to her Field of Barley by the Sea in the Fleming Collection. The view would appear to be looking South, with the stretch of the North Sea to the upper left and the field to the right. Elements of this abstraction of the landscape can be found in contemporary work by fellow Academician Robert Henderson Blyth RSA (1919-70), but never with the same raw energy of Eardley’s work, whilst her legacy is traceable in the subsequent work of Duncan Shanks RSA (b.1937).


Robert Henderson Blyth RSA (1919-70), Morning Fields, oil on board, around 1963, RSA Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund purchase, 1963 [1994.077] © the artist’s estate


Duncan Shanks RSA (b.1937), Sunburst, oil on paper on board, RSA Diploma Collection deposit, 1991 [1994.035] © the artist


William McTaggart RSA (1835-1910) was a pivotal figure in the history of the RSA. His early work was firmly rooted in the traditional figurative idiom of the nineteenth century, but by the end of his life he was turning out huge landscapes which heralded much of the loosening of technique and interpretation which came to characterise the more modernist elements of 20th Century painting. There is a famous image of McTaggart standing braced against the biting wind blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean onto the long sandy beach at Machrihanish on the Kintyre peninsula in Argyll. He stands, palette and brush in hand, before a large canvas which sits on an easel, both of which are heavily weighted with ropes and large boulders to prevent them both being blown away.


H H MacTaggart, William McTaggart painting on the shore at Machrihanish, b&w photograph from a snap taken in 1898, from Sir James L Caw’s Biography of McTaggart, Maclehose, 1917, RSA Library


There are strong parallels to be drawn between this image and one taken more than sixty years later by Audrey Walker of her friend Joan Eardley painting in even more challenging conditions on the shore at Catterline into the face of a fierce storm blowing in off the North Sea. Both McTaggart and Eardley had been formally trained; McTaggart as one of the gifted generation to study under Robert Scott Lauder RSA (1803-69) at the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh, and Eardley under Hugh Adam Crawford RSA (1899-1982) at Glasgow School of Art. Whilst McTaggart stuck to his traditional medium of oil paint on canvas, Eardley experimented with her media, even deploying decorators’ paint, and if seed heads or grains of sand ended up in the mix, so much the better.


Audrey Walker, Joan Eardley at Catterline, b&w photograph, RSA Archive. © Audrey Walker


Other Academicians were also particularly renowned for their work en plein air; in particular James McIntosh Patrick RSA (1907-98) and James Morrison RSA (1932-2020). The former, a fellow GSA graduate, captured a disappearing way of life in the agricultural landscapes of Tayside and Angus. Morrison, like Eardley had started out in Glasgow and had also attended GSA. He too had found early inspiration in the fabric of the city, painting many of the Victorian tenements in the period just before so many of them were bulldozed for high rise flats. Like Eardley he had left the soot covered city and settled initially in Catterline before making his home in Montrose. His love of the surrounding countryside was more akin to that of Patrick, documenting the topography of his adopted shire, but with great emphasis always on the huge and ever changing skies.

However, neither came even close to the almost visceral power in Eardley’s seascapes of Catterline. By 1962 Eardley had already enjoyed her first major solo exhibition with The Scottish Gallery but had also learnt of her serious illness. In these late last paintings of the turbulent skies and crashing seas it is as though she stood against Nature, facing her own destiny, fearless, her earthly troubles rendered miniscule and irrelevant against the massive, unshakeable force of Nature.


Joan Eardley RSA, Summer Sea, oil on board, 1962, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit (posthumous), 1964 [1994.004] © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021


At a General Assembly held on 13 February 1963 Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley joined a small and elite band of women when she was elected a full Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy, as the RSA Annual Report for 1963 recorded. Alberto Morrocco RSA (1917-98) was elected to the same rank at the same meeting. At the next Assembly on 20 March, Elizabeth Violet Blackadder RSA (b.1931), David McClure RSA (1926-98), James Barr ARSA (1911-69) and Sir Anthony Wheeler PPRSA (1919-2013) all entered the Academy as Associate Members.

Sadly, Eardley’s was an honour which she would cherish a mere six months. The same RSA Annual Report which carried news of her elevation to full Academician would, a few pages further on, record the loss sustained by the Academy and Scottish Art, by her untimely death;

“……..As a young student, her work showed promise of significant development. She understood the value of drawing and sensed the need to have a thorough knowledge of her craft. The soundness of her instinct later bore fruit and her work developed in power and emotional force, which could only come from appreciation of natural form and colour.

Neither in her life nor in her art did Joan Eardley choose the easy path. Her life was dedicated to the pursuit of the significant in art and, in consequence, she was prepared to forego many of the social amenities and pleasure most of us seek to enjoy.

Joan Eardley’s work does not reflect an idiom of our time. She went her individual way with a passionate yet creative devotion, and it is to the eternal credit of her associates that her worth was early recognised and she was, at the time, the youngest lady artist ever to be elected to the Academy. She was elected an Associate in 1955 and attained full Academician rank in 1963.

It is perhaps unwise to prophesy – especially in art – but some would say that in Joan Eardley we had one of the most distinguished landscape painters since William McTaggart the elder…..”


Audrey Walker, Joan Eardley at Catterline, b&w photograph, RSA Archive © Audrey Walker


1963 took a heavier than usual toll on the ranks of the Academy. In addition to Eardley, the following members also took their leave; Georges Braque HRSA (1882-1963), Donald Moodie, RSA (1892-1963), Andrew Graham Henderson RSA (1882-1963), Penelope Beaton ARSA (1886-1963), and Alexander George Robertson Mackenzie ARSA (1879-1963).

By the time Eardley died, in Killearn Cottage Hospital on 16 August 1963, she had perhaps come to terms with her fate. Amongst her last works was a painting of a vase of flowers; a calm image, full of colour, and of eternal hope.  Vincent Van Gogh had been similarly moved in the depths of his despair in his famous paintings of sunflowers, and one of the Academy’s former Presidents, Sir Robin Philipson PRSA (1916-92) as he was dying of cancer, also produced amongst his final works, a most glorious painting of flowers in a vase.

The work which Eardley created and has left us is doubly powerful, and even more evocative for that. She sits comfortably within the history and development of the Royal Scottish Academy, an integral player rather than a maverick outside it. Above all she has secured a distinctive niche as one of the strongest and most authentic modern artists, not just in Scotland, but on the international stage.


Works exhibited by Joan Eardley at the Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibitions [many can be found on ArtUK]

(Home address; 170 Drymen Rd, Bearsden, Glasgow)

1943 Drawing


468 Corrie (Purchased for the Royal Scottish Academy through the Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund from this exhibition)

592 A woman by a fire — study

653 Old woman drinking tea


252 Street kids (Purchased SNGMA, 1964)

267 Boy from the Rotton Row


341 A carter and his horse (Awarded the RSA Prize) (Purchased by the Government Art Collection from this exhibition)


301 The road to the sea — winter

315 Tenements

316 Winter landscape (Purchased Southwark Art Collection, 1955)


112 The stove

293 The shipbuilders’ street

1955 (Elected Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy)

173 Two Glasgow lassies

273 Cattle at a drinking place (Lent by Mrs J Morton)

297 A stove (Lent by Mrs A W Walker) (purchased SNGMA, 1984)


122 Children playing in back street (Allocated by HM Government to Perth Museum and Art Gallery in lieu of inheritance tax, 2010)

148 Lassie with a piece of chalk

255 September sunset

326 Tarbert street window


234 Windows and children, Glasgow

237 Stacks with setting sun (Possibly the same work as gifted to the Hunterian Art Gallery, 2004)

330 Back street, with children playing (1)

339 Back street, with children playing (2)


150 A winter sea

297 Chalked walls with children


155 The sea

301 Sun on the sea

313 July fields (Either the painting gifted to City Art Centre by the Scottish Modern Arts Association, 1959; or the version in the collection of Gracefield Arts Centre,  Lady Walker Bequest)


144 Stacks — winter (Possibly Paisley Museum and Art Galleries)

152 The sea — winter

200 The sea and the jetty

251 January flow tide (Purchased University of Edinburgh, 1960)


(Home address; 18 Catterline, Stonehaven, Kincardineshire)


90 High tide — a winter afternoon (Purchased Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum, 1969)

166 Harvest (Possibly purchased Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum, 1975; or SNGMA, presented as part of the Scott Hay Collection, 1967)

272 A breaking wave (Gifted to Hunterian Art Gallery, 1973 ;OR Purchased Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery, 1975)


85 Summer — grasses and barley on cliff top (Purchased City Art Centre, 1962)

189 A field of barley by the sea (The Fleming Collection)

229 Flowers between corn fields

339 A field by the sea —summer (Purchased for the Royal Scottish Academy through the Thorburn Ross Memorial Fund from this exhibition)

1963 (Elected Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy)

161 The sea I

200 Boats and the harbour (Purchased Dundee Art Galleries and Museum , 1964 OR Gifted to SNGMA, 1967)

259 The sea II (Gifted by the Contemporary Art Society to Kirklees Museums and Galleries, 1965)

1964 (Memorial Tribute)

234 Two children, 1963 —unfinished work (Lent by Mrs Irene Eardley) (Purchased Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museum, 1994)

235 The sea (Lent by Mrs Irene Eardley)

236 A field by the sea — summer (Lent by the RSA)

533 Italian peasant (Lent by Mr & Mrs Oliver)

534 Old woman by the fire (Lent by Mrs Henriques)

538 Corrie (Lent by the RSA)

1976 (150th Anniversary of RSA)

64 Summer sea (diploma work) (Lent by the RSA)