May 2021 sees the centenary of Joan Eardley (1921-1963), one of the most popular 20th century artists working in Scotland. Having grown up in Sussex and London, Eardley moved to Scotland with her family in 1939 and was accepted into the Glasgow School of Art where she studied from 1940-3. Inspired by the likes of Stanley Spencer, Eardley focused on the realities of life in the 20th century and the humanity of her humble subjects; indeed, on an extended study trip to France and Italy it was the peasants, the children, and the beggars that caught her eye and became the subjects of an exhibition on her return. It was on this Italian sojourn that Eardley was also exposed to the work of Giotto, whose use of dramatic narrative and vivid primary colours – especially blue – were repeated in her work throughout her life.
Eardley is known for her powerful, expressive paintings of the gritty, the elemental, and the dilapidated in post-war Scotland. Capturing contrasting sides of life, Eardley had two overriding areas of interest which produced her greatest works – the vast skies and roiling seas around the declining fishing village of Catterline, south of Aberdeen and the ragged children in Glasgow’s poverty-stricken tenements, one of whom was the sitter in 'Girl with a Poke of Chips', which sold at Tennants in 2018 for £87,000 (plus buyer’s premium).
The striking mixed media painting had generated much interest prior to sale and was eagerly fought over with 13 telephone bidders competing. ‘Girl with a Poke of Chips’ was included in the 1975 Scottish Arts Council Exhibition, before being exhibited with Roland, Browse & Delbanco, London, where it was purchased in 1963. The painting was also exhibited in Tennants’ loan exhibition 350 Years of British Art, November 2017.
Paintings and drawings of Glasgow’s street children spanned her career, right up until her premature death at the age of 42. Eardley was one of a generation of artists to whom urban childhood was a source of fascination – but the naturalistic poses of her sitters, their confident and direct gazes and the warmth of portrayal, point to the comfortable relationship she had with these children. In ‘Girl with a Poke of Chips’, against a grey, graffiti-strewn background, the sitter wears a vivid Giottesque blue contrasted with red; momentarily her attention has been drawn from her chips to look at us.