Friendship in focus: Joan Eardley and Angus Neil


Joan Eardley was born in Sussex in 1921 and brought up in London but trained at Glasgow School of Art from 1940. After her training in Glasgow, she studied for six months at a residential art school, Hospitalfield in Arbroath in 1947. There she met Angus Neil (1924-1992), a former soldier and joiner, who was three years her junior. A very significant friendship was formed between the two artists that lasted until Joan’s death in 1963. 



Joan Eardley- Sarah's Cottage  © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.

Joan Eardley’s first exhibition in Aberdeen was held at the Gaumont Cinema Gallery in 1950, and on this trip, she discovered the small fishing village of Catterline, where she went on to spend so much of her time. Angus came to Catterline to help Joan around her studio. His skills as a joiner became indispensable to Joan for making frames for her paintings and doing repair work around the house in Catterline.



Joan Eardley- Winter Sea IV © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.


The photograph of Angus and Joan by the Glasgow photographer Oscar Marzaroli (1933-1988) shows an intimate portrait of these two friends together, smiling while sitting outside the cottage Number 18 in Catterline. 



Oscar Marzaroli (1933-1988) Joan Eardley and Angus Neil, Catterline, 1963.


Joan, who was incredibly shy, does not look at the camera. Her smock and paint-stained trousers testify to her commitment to her art. Angus, on the other hand, looks straight at the camera and looks dapper in his thick polo neck jumper and wool overcoat, both were necessary to ward off the North East wintry chills. His windswept hair and neat moustache remind you of the 1930s matinée idol Ronald Colman.     



 Portrait Head by Angus Neil, 1965 © Estate of the Artist (2008)


Angus Neil was a gifted but disturbed man, whose life was marked by frequent bouts of despair. He was born in 1924 in Renfrewshire and brought up in Broughty Ferry. In his late teens he was called up for war service as a wireless operator in a Churchill tank, which he found a traumatic experience. After the war ended, he worked as a joiner’s apprentice before attending Hospitalfield School of Art in 1947 where he started to fully realise his potential as an artist.



Joan Eardley - Landscape with Telegraph Poles and Pink Sky © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.


Joan wrote about Angus in a letter to her mother: “But I like to help him sometimes as far as painting is concerned as I think that is the one thing he is genuinely keen on. And as well as that he is quite decent at heart, and is sensitive…I think he is lonely often.”

The qualities that stand out in his painting are reticence and delicate tension of feelings. He had a deceptively quiet means of expression by which he became able to communicate his feelings on paper, board or canvas. Compared to Joan’s work, his range appears narrow and his scale modest. 



A Boy by Angus Neil © Estate of the Artist (2008)


This painting titled ‘A Boy’, 1955 dates from the Glasgow period. It shows a boy seated in profile in the artist’s studio. It has a mood of quiet contemplation. The sitter seems detached and unconscious of the world around him and perhaps, unaware even of how he appears. In spite of the boy’s relaxed pose, the use of subdued colours and the play of light and shade heighten the quality of isolation and detachment.

Angus’s portraits of small, solemn Glasgow boys, self-contained, lonely children are quite different in treatment and mood from Joan’s response to the Glasgow street urchins - her paintings and drawings are alive with energy. 



Joan Eardley’s drawings
Boy Reading a Paper or Comic
Child with Red Doll 
Study of a Child
© the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.


Her preliminary sketches show her compassion for the Townhead kids as she humorously records their activities and their clothing or how they are deeply absorbed in reading a comic or shoulder the responsibilities of acting guardian to a younger sibling as in the painting titled, Brother and Sister, which is on display at Aberdeen Art Gallery.



Joan Eardley - Brother and Sister © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.


In contrast, Angus’s portraits of these boys tell us more about the artist’s inner feelings. In other words, they are portraits of his loneliness and isolation which probably served as the wellspring of his inspiration. It reminds us of the lines from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke: “I love the dark hours of my being./My mind deepens into them./There I can find, as in old letters,/the days of my life, already lived,/and held like a legend, and understood.”



Stooks of Corn by Joan Eardley © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021


Watch House, Catterline by Angus Neil © Estate of the Artist (2008)


The word ‘inspire’ comes from the Latin ‘inspirare’, meaning ‘to breathe or blow into.’ When we are inspired, we are ‘breathed into’, metaphorically speaking, by some divine or mystical force. The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857: “Today I felt pass over me/ A breath of wind from the wings of madness. ”The elements of aloneness and melancholia we see in Angus’s works, according to Baudelaire, are touched by “a breath of wind from the wings of madness”. Madness in this context can be interpreted as a sign of either a demonic or divine possession.



The Artist and His Muse (1968) by Carole Gibbons © Carole Gibbons (2009)

The painting of Angus by Glasgow artist Carole Gibbons also captured this idea of Baudelaire in the painting titled The Artist and his Muse (1968). Angus met Carole at Glasgow School of Art where he enrolled as a part-time student from 1947-8 after his study at Hospitalfield. The art critic Cordelia Oliver wrote that Carole became “a second mother figure” to Angus after Joan died and his life at Catterline disintegrated. He found himself back in Glasgow, homeless, seriously disturbed and he spent time sleeping rough in coal cellars. Carole continued supporting him during the difficult period of his life as an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital in Montrose. 

Carole’s painting of Angus represents the artist in the shimmering landscape with saturated colours. If we take a closer look at the composition, we can see the bodily forms of the artist dissolving into urgent, layered and dragged brush strokes. The painting is densely worked and its agitated and brooding qualities reminds you of works by British painters such as Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. Also, it seems worth noting that there is a sign of premonition in the foreground in a form of dark shadow which would eventually take a great toll on Angus. 

Angus is remembered by those who knew him as a personality of great warmth, charm and intelligence but he had a dark, unpredictable side. 



Still life, 1963 by Angus Neil © Estate of the Artist (2008)

It was in Catterline in 1963 that Angus would have painted this delicate study of dead and wilting flowers and grasses. Given that Joan died in August of that year it is very possible that he painted this work in memoriam to his friend.



Joan Eardley - Harvest Time © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021


Joan Eardley Sketching (Looking North) by Angus Neil. © Estate of the Artist (2008)

This sketch of Joan by Angus shows an autumnal picture of the agricultural fields near her cottage and we can see her sketching in the field. Plein air painting was critical to Joan’s art. She is quoted as saying; “I very often find that I take my paints to a certain place, begin to paint there and perhaps by the end of the summer I have not moved from that place…I just leave my paints there overnight and eventually a studio seems to have arrived outside.” 


Comparison of two landscapes with sunset
Pool In Wee Valley - Sunset by Angus Neil © Estate of the Artist (2008)
Setting Sun Over Fields by Joan Eardley © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

They both loved to paint out-of-doors, being part of the landscape and the cycle of seasons. It is in this that we find the common ground between Angus’ and Joan’s work.  Both Joan and Angus had great empathy with their subject matter and an ability to communicate this through their work. They shared their lives together and shared their subject matter, often painting side-by-side at Catterline.



Joan's Studio, No 1 Catterline by Angus Neil © Estate of the Artist (2008)

Yet Joan’s work is expressive, vigorous, strong and vital with fluidity and generosity of application – in contrast to the disease that was to blight her in the prime of life; whereas the painting by Angus is introverted, contemplative, melancholy and sensitive. 



Joan Eardley – Cornfield at Nightfall © the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021


Night Scene with Rising Moon – by Angus Neil © Estate of the Artist (2008)

Although their lives were often gripped by despair and loneliness,  they shared a form of love described by Rilke as “the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” (From Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet). 


aagmJoan Eardley and Angus Neil Catterline 1963_FW

Oscar Marzaroli, Joan Eardley and Angus Neil at No. 18 Catterline, May 1963.
Image courtesy of The Marzaroli Estate, The Fine Art Society.
© the Eardley estate. All rights reserved, DACS 2021.


Perhaps, we can only hope that this love and friendship they had for each other opened up new possibilities in their lives that ultimately left the world a more luminous and beautiful place.


Blog by Griffin Coe, Curator (Art)