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A Passionate Eye

Added on 19 September 2020

The slate grey night sky promises more snow. A large pale moon casts a luminous light over a slumped row of cottages below. Slushy snow spatters the ground as though it were recently left there by a sudden blizzard brought in by the sea. The black gable end of a cottage on the right hand side is silhouetted against the snow acting as a focal point for the scene. There is the sense of utter stillness that only a truly freezing night out of doors can have.

Joan Eardley painted ‘Catterline in Winter’ just before her death in 1963. Eardley first visited the small fishing village of Catterline, which lies 4 miles south of Stonehaven, in 1950. Initially she spent her winters painting there, returning to her studio in Townhead, Glasgow, during the summer months where she painted memorable scenes of tenement life. As the 50’s progressed Eardley became increasingly fascinated with the opportunity Catterline gave her to observe and paint the elemental landscape of the sea and the more gentle rural, coastal landscape adjoining it. As anyone who paints outside directly from nature will tell you the landscape is absolutely the worst of models. It never sits still for a moment. The light is always changing so what the artist looks at and tries to respond to in paint is a very fleeting thing. Consequently a finished painting is the result of many compromises the artist makes while painting the motif in front of them.

In her letters Eardley speaks of the exhilaration of working outdoors even at night in winter for as long as she could to capture the essence of what she saw. To do this she acquired an aviators padded flying suit which would keep out the cold for some of the time. For me ‘Catterline in Winter’ is without question the most powerful piece of painting produced by any painter in Scotland in the 20th century. If you visit Catterline today and go out to the end of the street past the Creel Inn and stand outside No 18 then look south you will see this view of the village but not as Eardley saw it during that cold winter night. The perspective of the cottages on the low skyline is not as dramatic as Eardley suggests it is. Eardley’s painting does not suggest the alarming drop from the cottages to the sea below. This however is not the point.

I think what Eardley wants us to see is what it felt like to stand in the utter stillness of a bone chilling night and let your mind take in the raw power of the scene. I can’t imagine she had long to paint this before she couldn’t feel her fingers holding the painters brushes and palette knives she used. Each paint stroke has been applied with a sense of urgency as Eardley responded directly to what she saw and felt. Paint drips and spatters in places as it is dragged, brushed and scraped over the hardboard. Amidst the smeared suggestion of landscape form Eardley is careful to draw the profile of the houses against the night sky. Eardley’s first studio at No 1 stands a dark silhouette on the left end of the row, her second studio, known locally as ‘Sarah’s Cottage’, can be made out with its blue front door. The main thrust of the composition makes a dramatic V shape on its side, the black silhouette of the gable end of the Creel Inn being at its tip.

Looking at ‘Catterline in Winter’ is always an engaging experience for me. At one level Eardley loved the expressive quality of the painted surface. She was aware of the work of the abstract expressionist painters in America and the great strides they were making experimenting with visual ideas of the monumental. Unlike them however she successfully managed to use their expressive bold paint handling with a deft sense of drawing which tugs at the heart strings.

Many years ago I can remember being completely bowled over by Barnett Newman’s, ‘Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue No 3’, 1967, which is in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. This is a painting on a vast scale by Newman, consisting of three enormous, intensely coloured, rectangles of vivid red, yellow and blue. Such a bold simple statement of artistic intent. Curiously when I went back to see it a few years later somehow it had lost its power for me.

If you look closely at ‘Catterline in Winter’ you will see Eardley has addressed the same problem as Newman. However her tiny streaks of red smeared on the ground under No 1 Cottage, the blue door of Sarah’s Cottage and the scrape of yellow behind a black fence post in the lower foreground give this sombre composition of winter blacks, greys and browns a glimmer of hope for the return of summer warmth yet to come.

'Catterline in Winter' can be viewed online at BBC 'Your Paintings':

last edit 30/12/2014