William McTaggart, R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W.
William McTaggart was one of
the finest painters Scotland has produced, and an original genius, a pioneer
of impressionism before it even had a label. In his early years he taught
himself drawing and painting, and already at the age of twelve he was able
to earn extra money and delight friends with his ability as a portrait
painter. McTaggart was born of crofting parents at Aros Farm, near
Machrihanish, at the present day a farm beside the East end of the airfield
at Machrihanish. His parents were Gaelic speaking and his mother was a
granddaughter of the religious poet, Duncan MacDougall. His parents are
buried in Kilkenzie churchyard, and in her later years his mother came back
from Glasgow to live in Campbeltown.
At the age of twelve William McTaggart was an apprenticed apothecary to Dr.
Buchanan of Campbeltown, who quickly recognised his ability and encouraged
him. His starting wage was half a crown a week and his dinner on Sunday.
William's parents had opposed his desire to train as an artist but his
employer encouraged him to continue with his painting and portraiture,
placing his library at his disposal, and introducing him to some of the
wealthy locals who gave him commissions and also the chance to see other
paintings in their houses.
When his apprenticeship was
over William McTaggart took the bold step of sailing off to Glasgow with his
savings, determined to make his living from painting.
In February 1852 aged sixteen he stayed with an elder brother and sought the
advice of Sir Daniel McNee to whom he had an introduction. He was advised to
enrol at the Trustees Academy, Edinburgh. This academy owed its origin to
the Treaty of Union, and had been founded in 1760 by the Board of the
Manufacturers of Scotland to improve design for textiles etc., but had
developed into an art college. At the time McTaggart entered the school
Robert Scott Lauder (1805 - 1809) was the director of Antique Life and
Colour Studies. He inspired a group of well-known artists, most of whom
later moved to London. This teacher's passion for colour and under-standing
of the properties of oil paint was taken up by the students and became the
principal characteristic of most Scottish painting. McTaggart was carefully
trained and during this time he managed to support himself by painting
Between 1852 and 1860
painting by the Pre-Raphaelites Milais and Holman Hunt were exhibited in
Edinburgh but, although excited by their pursuit of naturalism, McTaggart
moved further to perfect a truth to atmosphere by a more exact use of broken
colour. David Fincham in the introduction to the "McTaggart Centenary
Exhibition 1955" in the Tate Gallery writes "As early as 1875 McTaggart had
invented a system of impressionism different from but comparable to that of
Sisley, Monet and Renoir"
Although William McTaggart lived most of his working life in Edinburgh and
after 1889 at Lasswade, he returned nearly every year to Kintyre, and places
in this peninsula were the sites and inspiration of many of his paintings
completed in his studio during the winter.
In 1859 while still a student he was elected an associate of the Royal
Scottish Academy. In 1860 he was able to take a painting holiday around
Campbeltown Loch, and when on a visit to New Orleans on the Leewardside Road
he met Mary Holmes, who was also on holiday. McTaggart painted his first
study of the sea, called "Hesperus" on this holiday, and in June 1863 he
married Mary Holmes in Glasgow. The marriage was very happy and seemed to
stimulate his painting, which improved steadily. As part of their honeymoon
the young couple made a brief visit to London where Mrs. McTaggart met some
of her artist husband's early friends.
In 1862 some of McTaggart's closest friends migrated to London, but he could
never be persuaded to make the move and, although he showed pictures at the
Royal Academy in London between 1866 and 1875, he rarely visited the
capital, and settled in Edinburgh. With a growing family his holidays by the
sea were for some years on the East Coast. He painted at Carnoustie and
Broughty Ferry out of doors, and had a studio in his flat in Charlotte
Square. As a result many of his patrons were from Dundee and nearby and the
best public collections of his pictures are to be found at Broughty Ferry
McTaggart and his family came
to Kilkerran, Campbeltown, for a holiday in 1870 - a working holiday as he
was always a very energetic painter. After 1870 nearly every summer found
him and his family in Kintyre, at Machrihanish, Tarbert, Carradale or
Southend. His output was tremendous. He had a large family and throughout
his life he never stopped painting or lowered his standards or aspirations.
His paintings were much sought after and commanded high prices. Some regard
as his best those pictures painted about 1870, the year he was elected an
academician. At that time he was probably the best open air painter in
Britain. In 1875 "The village, Whitehouse" was exhibited in the London
Academy. McTaggart painted several pictures of Whitehouse. To journey there
from Campbeltown meant catching the Campbeltown-Tarbert coach and starting
In 1876 McTaggart began water-colour studies at Machrihanish. These sketches
were sometimes worked into pictures in oils painted later in the studio. The
year 1884 must have been a very sad one for the artist. Early in the year
his mother died in Campbeltown. On returning home his wife developed an
illness which she had already and died on December 15th. His youngest
daughter was inseparable from her father even when he went visiting. When he
was wooing the lady who became his second wife Jean went too, and also on
the honeymoon. He painted a beautiful portrait of this child in a red frock
with a lace collar. It is called "Belle" and is owned by her sisters.
William McTaggart's eldest daughter and his second wife, Marjorie Henderson,
had a wonderfully happy relationship. They were really like sisters and the
whole family were devoted to each other. McTaggart often included his family
and young friends in his pictures, as for example in "Consider the Lilies."
He was a most understanding and approachable father. By 1889 McTaggart felt
sufficiently established to abandon direct commission and paint the subjects
he preferred - pictures of the sea and countryside. Before he removed from
Edinburgh, Dowells held a sale of his accumulated works in the spring of
1889. A total of £4,000 was realised - at that time an unprecedented success
in Scotland. In 1877 he had sold a painting for 330 guineas, which showed
that he earned a satisfactory income, was able to paint what he wanted and
still fulfil all family demands. In May 1889 he moved to Dean Park,
Broomieknowe, on the outskirts of Lasswade, Midlothian, and built himself a
studio in the garden. Later on in 1895 he built a bigger studio cum gallery,
and painted at Broomieknowe from 1889 - 1910. During the 1880's McTaggart
painted a lot in watercolours. There are many beautiful sketches of Kintyre,
Glenramskill, Machrihanish, Kildavie, Bonnie Coniglen, Pennyseorach Bay,
Southend, Dunaverty, Brunerican and many pictures of Carradale were painted
"on the spot." The summer visits of 1887 and 1888 were completely given over
to watercolours, some to be transformed into larger compositions in oil in
In 1892 McTaggart altered his holidays to visit Kintyre in June instead of
August and thereafter came practically every year in this month till 1908.
He found in the long light days new effects of light to study. 1894 was a
particularly busy year for him and 1895 a particularly fine one for weather.
This was the year his new studio was built and he painted a well known
studio picture called "Consider the lilies." It shows a bed of large white
lilies with two rings of dancing children. McTaggart never missed a R.S.A.
Exhibition between 1855 and 1895. He showed a hundred and ninety pictures of
which seventy two were portraits and nineteen water-colours all exhibited
after 1875. Hugh Cameron, a well known critic, gave his opinion of McTaggart.
'It was pioneer work - he put aside convention after convention in his
consistent and purposeful development towards the expression of the things
in nature which fascinated him." Another opinion was "Best open air painter
in Britain." In 1894 the "Art - Journal" of that year devoted an article to
McTaggart's work entitled "A Scottish Impressionist."
1897 was the thirteenth centenary of the death of St. Columba. That summer
when he visited Machrihanish he found that the Cauldrons bays had filled
with sand and this unusual happening gave him the subject matter for his
famous painting "The Coming of Saint Columba" which hangs in the National
Gallery of Scotland. The year before this (1896) McTaggart had a serious
illness but recovered completely by 1898. In that year his long standing
friend and patron, Mr. Orchan, died and left his collection of pictures,
after his wife's death, to Broughty Ferry. So there are about twenty of
McTaggart's pictures on show there. It was felt that there had been no
exhibition of his pictures for some time so in 1900, Mr. D. McOmish Dott
purchased twenty nine pictures for £5,000 and showed them in Edinburgh,
Glasgow and Dundee. In 1901 the "Scottish Artists' Benevolent Association"
was started with a sale of prominent painters' works for its funds. William
McTaggart took a leading part in the foundation of this association and gave
an early Broomieknowe painting "Green Fields" for the sale. In the same year
he visited Southend and painted some wonderful pictures in a fine August,
"Where the Smuggler Came Ashore" and "The Sounding Sea" - a masterpiece as
is "The Paps of Jura" (1902).
Nearer home McTaggart painted
some pictures at Cockenzie on the Firth of Forth and the sea in these
pictures is a completely different sea to that of the Atlantic paintings. In
1903 McTaggart was saddened by the death of his son, Hamish, at the early
age of thirteen and came to Rosehill on Campbeltown Loch for a change. The
family still came to Machrihanish for a summer painting holiday up to 1907
when McTaggart painted his last oil paintings "Cauldrons Bay", "Atlantic
Surf", "Summer Sea" and "Mist and Rain Machrihanish." The names are
evocative in themselves. There is a photograph of the artist painting on the
beach at Machrihanish - coat flying in the breeze and his heavy easel and
canvas held down by an assistant - probably a member of the family. He was a
master painter at depicting the changing moods of sea and sky - the shining
wind caressing western seas. The figures in his pictures are usually
subordinate to or enhance the mood of the picture. "He loved to wreath the
beauty of nature with the charm and innocence of childhood." As a Belgian
artist, Emile Claus said in 1916 "Ah! C'est lui qui peint les enfants comme
William McTaggart died peacefully in April 1910 and is buried in Newington
Churchyard, Edinburgh. His paintings even in reproduction are an inspiration
Father at the Helm
An Orange Sellter
William McTaggart R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W.
Biography and an appreciation by James L. Caw
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