My favourite painting: James Naughtie

'The word that comes to my mind is always humanity, even when there isn’t a person to be seen in the picture.'

Catterline in Winter, 1963, by Joan Eardley (1921–63), 47½in by 51½in, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

James Naughtie says:
This painting takes me home. I didn’t grow up in sight of the sea, but Joan Eardley’s picture of the place where she lived and worked for the last years of her (short) life is an evocation of north-east Scotland that moves me with its spirit. The light, the power that the landscape seems to hold, the tumult of a coming storm: all this reminds me of the fields and the skies that I knew as a boy. She could paint a sunny day and find violence just under the surface or cover her canvas with a wild sea and reveal
a strange stillness at the heart of it. The word that comes to my mind is always humanity, even when there isn’t a person to be seen in the picture. She could conjure up all the threat of a lowering sky, or the bitter chill of the east wind on a winter’s day, and make it seem utterly natural: the way things are. She became celebrated first for her street portraits of children in Glasgow, but, for me, she’s a poet of the landscape. I look at this picture, and I know where I come from.

James Naughtie is Special Correspondent and Books Editor for BBC News. His new novel, Paris Spring, was published last month

John McEwen comments on Catterline in Winter:
By the time Joan Eardley died tragi- cally young from cancer, Douglas Hall—who, as founding Keeper, established the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art as Britain’s first world-class contemporary art museum—had already proclaimed her right to international stature by buying this and others of her paintings to hang alongside her favourite Soutine and in the sympathetic company of de Staël, Vuillard, Bonnard and Jackson Pollock. ‘I suppose I am essentially a romantic,’ she said, the year of this painting and of her death.

Eardley drew inspiration from two outdoor subjects, wild in their different ways. In Glasgow, her mother’s home town, where the family moved from London to avoid the bombs and she attended Glasgow School of Art, she liked to paint the urchins in the city’s slums. In Catterline, a small fishing village south of Aberdeen, where she had a house from 1954, she painted the landscape, especially stormy seas, identifying with the harsh con- ditions so intensely that description verged on abstraction.

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A close friend, Audrey Walker, wrote ‘there were two Joans’, gentle and strong, approximating to the summer and winter sea. It was the rarely revealed ‘winter-sea’ Joan she most admired: ‘the tough, cussing, swearing, bull-dozing indomitable creator of what may be masterpieces… This Joan was to me godlike, and her courage and triumph over the appalling conditions in which she painted… when so often she was suffering physical pain, is something to make an ordinary creature very humble.’ The bleak Catterline in Winter speaks of that empathy and heroic commitment.