Born in Sussex, Joan Eardley moved with her family to Bearsden on the north-west boundary of Glasgow in 1939. She studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1940-43 and 1947-48 and at Hospitalfield School of Art in 1947. In 1949 she took her first Glasgow studio, eventually settling in the Townhead district of the city. Having exhibited from the late 1940s, her reputation was firmly established by a solo exhibition in 1955 at the St George's Gallery in London. In the same year she was elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy, becoming a full Academician in 1963, the year in which she died. The following year the Arts Council of Great Britain held a touring memorial exhibition of over one hundred works.
Eardley first discovered the tiny fishing village of Catterline, just south of Stonehaven in 1950. Several visits followed and from 1956 she took up semi-residence in the village. She stayed first at The Watch House, then bought no. 1 Catterline, which she retained as a store and studio after she moved to 'Sarah's', and from there to no. 18 in the middle of the village. The sea, the shore with fishing nets stretched out to dry, the string of clifftop cottages perched high above, and the extensive fields beyond provided a constant source of inspiration. All year round she painted out of doors, revelling in the extreme conditions and developing an increasingly expressionistic technique to capture the wild landscape on canvas.
The fields behind the row of cottages were a favourite subject, whether covered with snow and ice in winter or filled with crops and wild flowers in the summer months. In 1962 she described the pleasure she took in painting the summer fields in a letter to a friend, 'I've got a series of paintings going at the end of my old cottage ... It's a handy spot as no-one comes near and I can work away undisturbed. I just go on from one painting to another - just the grasses and the corn - it's oats this year, barley it was last year. There's a wee, windblown tree, and that's all. But every day and every week it looks a bit different - the flowers come and the corn grows so it seems silly to shift about. I just leave my painting table out here, and my easel and palette' (see C. Oliver, Joan Eardley, R.S.A., Edinburgh, 1988, p. 76).
Painted in 1960, Between the Fields of Barley, is typical of Eardley's sensitive response to the Catterline landscape. William Buchanan (loc. cit.) comments on this painting, 'Her ability to translate her acute awareness of her surroundings into paint is consummate. She looked along a grassy bank, noting the blue, white and poppy-red scatter of wild flowers. Above, a cool misty sky suggested that soon the sun would slowly break through to dry the fields and to scorch the fragile plants. That experience became Between the Fields of Barley'.