Eardley's first Glasgow studio was in Cochrane Street, after which she moved to 204 St. James's Road in the Townhead district of Glasgow. The neighbourhood provided a rich source of subjects for her work, 'the character of Glasgow lies in its back streets which are for me pictorially exciting. There is no social or political impetus behind my paintings of that part of Glasgow, as is sometimes suggested. The back streets mean almost entirely screaming, playing children - all over the streets - and only in the shadows of doorways groups of women, and at street corners groups of men, but always chiefly children and the noise of children' (see C. Oliver, Joan Eardley, R.S.A. (1921-1963), Arts Council Memorial Exhibition Catalogue, Glasgow, 1964, p. 9).
Shipbuilders' Street is one of a number of studies of the Port Glasgow area which the artist explored in the early 1950s. Carolyn Oliver writes: 'The technique in which squarish slabs of pigment could be articulated and given form by forceful dark lines was developed in paintings like Shipbuilders' Street (circa 1951), a tall, narrow canvas of street kids playing against a background of shipbuilding activity. Patches of rust-red stabbed by brighter scarlet, yellow and cerulean blue stand for the children playing on the pavement, with a pale grey hull, high on the stocks behind, against a dun-coloured sky' (C. Oliver, Joan Eardley, R.S.A., Edinburgh, 1988, p. 39).
The present work was formerly in the collection of Colonel Robert Henriques, M.B.E., a collector who was instrumental in introducing Eardley's work to London. Henriques invited Eardley to participate in the 1954 exhibition of Six Young Painters at the Parsons Gallery in London and purchased Shipbuilders' Street at the show. This exhibition led to the artist's first solo show in London at St. George's Gallery in Cork Street in June 1955. In the introduction to the catalogue for this exhibition, Henriques wrote, 'For some time now I have had the pleasure of looking at Joan Eardley's paintings hanging in very good company [he meant of course his own collection]. They show to no disadvantage alongside Sickert and James Pryde, Augustus and Gwen John, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and Chistopher Wood. I have not just chosen these names at random. I feel, although it may seem pretentious to say so, that Joan Eardley has certain of the qualities of each of these painters ... she is visual rather than conceptual, and it is her peculiar way of seeing things that is more important than her imagination or her invention' (see C. Oliver, op. cit., pp.52-3).