Secret Style Icon No. 24: Joan Eardley

Self-Portrait, 1943

A few weeks ago I wrote about Womankind magazine and the editor’s vision of a readership that wanted to ‘look outward, not inward’.

I was in need of a bit of that. Just when we thought the sun might return, there were unreasonable flurries of snow across grey Glasgow. All my waking hours were structured in service of work and practised wellbeing: y’know, getting my five a day, resentfully attempting yoga. Unsurprisingly, the more tightly wound up the days were, the less productive I was. I looked inward for respite but fell over in my warrior pose and fell asleep trying to meditate.

So I returned to that idea of looking outward. My parents invited me to join them on a visit to the Joan Eardley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and I gratefully accepted. Yoga wasn’t untangling me, so maybe Art would do it.


Her famous paintings of street kids in Glasgow were there, tender portraits in messy raggedy shades of red (‘they are Glasgow, this richness that Glasgow has … as long as Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint’). Her paintings of Catterline were enormous. Everyone looked up close and then stepped back to try and get a grip of them.

Glasgow Children, 1958

There was a lot of detail given about her life, and what struck me was that she had used her time so wisely, living and painting largely alone in a rundown cottage in Aberdeenshire. It read like paradise. She painted the weather and had the luxury of waiting weeks for storms to return so she could pick up where she had left off. Her life was one of self-determination and meaningful work. She had no electricity or running water in Catterline but such fulsome riches in so many other ways. I was besotted. I wondered how I could get some of that verve, that sass.

If you are, like many people, working a job which is not exactly the culmination of your dreams in life (hi, hey there), it can be easy to plod along and forget the kind of starry plans and schemes you had as a kid. It’s horribly easy to forget that we all – if you’ll excuse my earnestness – have quiet miracles awaiting within. No really we do. I’m sure of it. This is a nice place; your cynicism is not welcome here.

We won’t be Joan Eardley; there was only one of her. I thought I could try some other ways of being, nonetheless.  I decided to look outwards and go do some things. I booked a few days off work (yessss, excellent, more) and I accepted some very lovely invitations to all kinds of things. My pal bought us tickets to see Josie Long, and as it turns out, I needed to see a loud woman doing fiery comedy about current events with a scary amount of optimism, plus an Atticus Finch joke. I went places, I met people, I visited friends. I don’t mean to brag, but I did manage to take two naps in one day. I even tried painting, which was a disaster, although perhaps not because several hours sped by unaccounted for, wrapped up in joy. How energetic life feels when you’re enjoying it.

On the rather dull side, work returns again; but I’ll be bringing a little Eardley style to it now.

How she worked it:

   Doggedly pursure the things you enjoy

   Give yourself time to do this whenever you can

   Be ferocious while you’re doing it

And, of course, overalls and boots: ‘She painted not just in fine weather but also in snowstorms and gale-force winds, wearing an RAF flying suit and boots, with her easel held in place by means of ropes and boulders, the sea broiling at her feet

A strong look for a life less ordinary.

The exhibition is on until May 2017, so if you fancy having a look, it’s all there waiting for you.


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