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.