Joan Eardley 2
Joan Eardley, ‘Catterline, Aberdeenshire’, 1962-63, oil on canvas. Courtesy The Glasgow School of Art

From then on she painted children

and she didn’t paint the sea,

even when she lived right next to it

and the spray spat against her neck

as she stood with her back to the North waves,

painting the fields behind Catterline

over and over, with wheat-stems stuck

onto canvas, ochre and bovine

grit in the wind. It’s unsettling

how paint can be so self-absorbed, the thematic

content wallowing somewhere below

the surface. Is this why she didn’t paint the sea?

Rather: beehives, dye poles, the whole

sorry scene of a village’s gutted industry.

The occasional figure would approach

her there, jellied in time by depiction.

To paint someone ‘approaching’

is to keep them at arm’s length.

Safer this way. The fishermen remember

seeing her at work, how just like them

in attire she was, in stocky silhouette. Easel

legs clawed into ground, weighted

down with stones. Nothing would deter her

they said. Squall, veering and soon.

When the Rottenrow slum kids

climbed the spiral steps to her studio

she gave them threepence for sweets

and second-hand clothes. The more

you know a place, the more it gives

itself to you. Her father survived

the trenches, but took his life

when the dairy farm failed. She took

to paint. Did he hide it from the animals, too?

And anyway, no use crying over—

The clothes ill-fitted the children

and even the paint was too big,

sinking black buttons in their bloated

faces. Both were scratchy

and presumptuous; did she know it?

A sore neck kept her from looking

too long. Up at the urchins, down

at the sketchbook. Truth—

somewhere between the two? A friend

took photos that she worked from

instead. Turned the Townhead slums

a gouache blue where children

floated like doilies. She wanted

the sea cottage and the city slum, both.

A woman artist is unfortunate like this,

needy and oceanic. An invite to her first

exhibition was billed as a ‘one-man show’.

How to offset the romantic burden: establish

a framework of realism; absolutely no sea.

Not that she cared much for Turner,

though she did admire Pollock, strew

imago dei along the coast paths.

It’s not derivative if you’re far enough

from the source. Sometimes she’d

drive her Lambretta inland, paint sheep

in the turnip fields. But mostly she’d turn

widdershins around the bay, the fishermen

watching her watch for structures

to emerge between horizon and land.

So what if she did paint the sea, eventually,

and the scenes were predictably vast and wild?

The point is that for a long time,

she didn’t. Every woman artist has a ‘sea faze’

that quickly overwhelms all his prior

resistance. You don’t have to be parentless

to be an orphan. A body can instil absence

with its presence, and garble your senses

indefinitely. Her eyes like this. Saw

sea-blue in the rotting streets, all along.


Daisy Lafarge works across poetry, fiction, criticism, theory and visual art.

she didn’t paint the sea, after Joan Eardley is part of Women Painting: Scottish Art 1940-1980, an ongoing project by Susannah Thompson and Marianne Greated.