O ne of the highlights of Sotheby’s Scottish Art sale this month is Joan Kathleen Harding Eardley’s Mrs Red Wallpaper, a striking and monumental early work by the artist. It was exhibited at the Society of Scottish Artists in 1948, the year Eardley was elected a professional member. A critic from the Glasgow Herald was drawn to Eardley’s work in the exhibition, remarking: ‘Among the West of Scotland painters Joan Eardley, with two large interiors, hinting at both Gilman and Colquhoun-MacBryde school, is noteworthy…the colour is bold and the drawing is strong and personal.’ (C. Oliver, Joan Eardley, 1988, p.21). According to another review, Mrs Red Wallpaper was given a prime position in the 1948 exhibition: ‘…in the first room an important place rightly goes to Miss Eardley’s painting of a strange but wholly convincing interior.’ (F. Pearson, Joan Eardley, 2007, p.16).
Eardley’s debt to the Post-Impressionists in this piece is clear, notably Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, in the use of vivid and saturated colour and the decorative flatness of the composition. Christopher Andreae remarked: ‘Artists all carry round with them mental images of their favourite artists…Eardley carried Van Gogh.’ (C. Andreae, Joan Eardley, p.37). It is as if Eardley is fusing Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, (1888, Musée d’Orsay) and Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (1889, Art Institute of Chicago) in the expressive use of colour, playful articulation of perspective and the weighty and stylised rendering of the female figure. Andreae makes particular reference to Eardley’s stylistic confidence, observing: ‘The paintings have a richness of colour and pattern, along with a powerfully acute execution, that is quite exceptional in a young painter.’ (F. Pearson, p.16).
In Cordelia Oliver’s biography of Eardley, she contextualises the present work: 'the painting was inspired by something seen a year earlier on a visit to Lincoln; the wonderfully cluttered interior of a cottage belonging to one of Joan’s “discoveries” – an elderly woman she was always to remember as “Mrs Red Wallpaper”. As so often, Joan had made a drawing at the time and composed the painting later on in her Glasgow studio.’ (C. Oliver, p.21). Eardley had travelled to Lincoln in 1946 at just 25 years old to execute a commission, a mural on the history of costume (the work was not photographed and has since gone missing). While in Lincoln she lodged with the headmistress of Sincil Bank Secondary Modern Girls School, engaging and painting with the schoolgirls and creating studies of the locals.
In Mrs Red Wallpaper, Eardley relishes in her almost anthropological artistic exploration of the seated Lincoln-resident surrounded by her belongings. Eardley has depicted the old woman in a wicker chair, her feet soaking in a bucket of water as she stares ahead with washing hanging from a rack drying in front of her open fireplace. Although formally a genre painting, Eardley articulates the character and interests of the figure through the objects and décor of her home, capturing more of a portrait. Eardley is creating a social record of the scene before her, playfully detailing the idiosyncrasies of the figure’s personal possessions: the Japonist print in an oriental frame; the carpet with its William Morris style motifs; the record player; the coffee grinder; and the wall-mounted taxidermy fish. The eclectic mix of objects gives the impression of a cultured and artistic if not rather eccentric household.
The present work is rare in subject matter for Eardley, and offers an outstanding example of her artistic mastery at a relatively early age in her career, which was to last only 15 years before her premature death in 1963. The monumental composition is executed with rich, saturated colours and decorative flatness, exuding the bold confidence of this visionary and progressive painter. Mrs. Red Wallpaper further captures Eardley’s untiring curiosity and interest in the people around her, and paves the way for her later focus on figurative work, specifically the characters she captured around her studio in the Townhead tenements of Glasgow.