1835 – 1910
“Nobody could have suspected when, in 1835, the name William
McTaggart was registered amongst the births in Campbeltown parish,
that the name of one of the most original and fascinating painters of the
nineteenth century had been recorded for the first time…”
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 portraits.
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 Perry and Kirkcaldy.
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 at 5.a.m.
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 Conieglen, 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 the studio.
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 shoved 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 des fleurs.”
William McTaggart died peacefully in April 1910 and is buried in Newington Churchyard, Edinburgh. His paintings even in reproduction are an inspiration and delight.
Sir James Caw’s Biography 1917.
The McTaggart’ Exhibition Catalogue 1974.
Text reproduced by Kind Permission: Kintyre Antiquarian and Natural History Society