Joan Eardley at 100

May 18, 2021
Joan Eardley at 100

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 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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.

About the author

Robin Rodger

Robin H. Rodger graduated as O. E. Saunders Prizeman in Art History from the University of St Andrews in 1983, before taking his Diploma in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester in 1984. The next 26 years were spent at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, and since 2013 he has been Documentation Officer with the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture. A keen researcher, he has lectured and published widely on Perthshire artists and Perth silver, and is currently engaged in research projects relating to aspects of print and printmaking in Scotland.