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Signed with a hug

RAGAMUFFINS have not been without appeal to artists down the centuries. Joan Eardley's paintings and pastels of Glasgow slum children, made in the 1950s and early '60s, in one sense follow this tradition: One thinks of Goya's little beggars at play, of some of Rembrandt's pen sketches of street children, of Murillo's urchins, as precursors of a work such as ``Seated Boy in White Shirt.'' And Eardley -- usually identified as a Scottish painter, even though born in the south of England -- cannot have been unaware of more recent strands of artistic expression. Some of her earliest works show Van Gogh as an inspiration: his later drawing style on the one hand, and his earthy Dutch peasants on the other. She undoubtedly knew Kokoschka's work. She has also sometimes been compared to Soutine, and her emotional application of surging paint does hint a fellow spirit. Like this restless painter, she expressively emphasizes the odd asymmetry of people in her portraits, and seems to let the wind and weather carry away the paint in her tilted, gusty, elemental landscapes.

But shared feelings and influences do not necessarily diminish originality, and her pictures are hers alone. They come from exceedingly direct encounters with her subjects.

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Her career was comparatively brief, terminating in 1963. She divided her painterly interests between Townhead in Glasgow's east end, and the east coast village of Catterline, just south of Aberdeen. In both places she made herself -- though middle class in upbringing -- part of the community. Catterline did not feel very different to her from Glasgow's Townhead area: Each was ``really just a little community -- a little back street where everyone knows everyone else.'' In spite of considerable demolition and rebuilding in Glasgow since her time, this largely working-class city still seems to be at root an agglomeration of villages.

Her subject matter in Townhead, however, was different from that in Catterline. To her the back streets of Glasgow meant ``screaming, playing children.'' They got to know her and pestered her to paint them (they were also not uninterested in the bait of a ``piece,'' or sandwich). Cordelia Oliver has written that she ``attracted children like insects to a honeypot.'' Her combination of involvement and detachment as an artist came out in her approach to these children. Her painter's eye wasn't interested in all of them. She came to know about half a dozen families well, the Samson family in particular. She wrote: ``There is a large number of Samsons, twelve at the present moment. . . . This particular family of Samsons move me. They hardly notice me when they come in. They are full of what they have been doing. Who has gone to jail today. Who has broken into what shop. Who flung a pie into whose face, and so it goes. . . . They are letting out their life. I try to think in painterly terms. Bits of red, all funny bits of colours.''

Getting any of the children to sit still was rarely possible, and posing them artificially clearly undesirable. Always intrigued herself by the graffiti chalked or painted on the neighborhood walls, in the late pastel shown here she treats the smudge-faced boy in his hand-me-down clothes not only with the practiced descriptiveness of an excellent and sensitive draftsman, but almost as if she saw herself chalking him onto an alley wall. She brings him up to the surface of the paper (workbench sandpaper), deliberately cutting off scalp and feet with a suggestion of the arbitrary that is surely calculated. She presents him as a rough little character, sturdy by circumstance, elementally ``Glaswegian.''

Some have charged Eardley's child pictures with ``sentimentality.'' Others have rigorously denied any such aspersion. One critic (Keith Roberts) wrote: ``It is as if her sympathies, kept in check during the recording process, demand that she finish off not with a signature, but with a hug.'' But are her sympathies even held in check as she actually works? And why should they be?

She is no cool observer. But she balances her warmth with a touch of quizzicality. Douglas Hall has described her grasp of subjects as ``close, eager, curious, and prehensile.'' That last word is interesting, suggesting that she wraps round her subject and at the same time is prompted by forces that are involuntary and instinctive. Perhaps, anyway, an element of ``hug'' (tempered with matter-of-factness) is no bad thing in the study of fellow human beings, small or large.

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