William McTaggart RSA (1835 - 1910)

A Celebration Of Kintyre's Famous Artist Son

William McTaggart is regarded as one of Scotland’s finest landscape painters and one of Campbeltown’s most famous sons. His inspiration and some of his pioneering techniques of painting were in part products of an upbringing in Kintyre with its significant history, unique scenery and atmosphere.  He was born in 1835, a crofter’s son, just a stone’s throw away from Campbeltown.

Nothing remains of the croft but it stood nearby the present Aros farm in the middle of the Laggan Moss, a somewhat wilder and undrained country that belies the pastoral present day. 

Following his boyhood and schooling in Campbeltown he had the good fortune to gain entrance to the Trustees Academy (The Royal Scottish Academy) in Edinburgh through the influence, initially of Dr John Buchanan of 9 Longrow, Campbeltown to whom he was an apprenticed apothecary.  It is clear that Dr Buchanan recognised and encouraged the incipient, rare artistic talent evident in the young McTaggart.He was already making pocket money from sketching portraits of customers. 

He left Campbeltown for Edinburgh in 1852 at the tender age of 16, much against his father’s wishes but with a great passion and vision in his heart.  At the Trustee’s Academy he was fortunate in having an inspirational teacher and principal in Robert Scott Lauder and also to fall in with a group of particularly gifted contemporary students – J. Orchardson, O.P. Chalmers, J. Pettie, J Macwhirter, T. Graham and H. Cameron.
Even as a student he quickly became a successful artist (requiring to finance himself and on occasions send money back to his family) and soon developed a career in portraiture and Pre-Raphaelite genre painting.  He travelled quite widely for commissions, even into England and to Ireland.  This later gave him the financial freedom to paint the subjects closest to his heart and to evolve his own inimitable style.  He became a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) in 1870 and later he became a trustees of the Academy and a teacher there himself.

His principal biographer James L. Caw (William McTaggart RSA, published 1917) extols the widely held claim that during his career he invented a “form of Impressionism” in his painting in parallel with the now famous French School, although appearing to have been remote and isolated from any of its influences, rather being influenced by the works of Turner, Constable, Whistler and the Hague School.  He became “the Scottish Impressionist”.

He married his first wife Mary (Brolochan) Homes in 1863, a childhood friend whom he re-met whilst painting at New Orleans near Campbeltown.

Although he lived all his adult life in or near Edinburgh, in order to develop and maintain a successful career ( principally at 24 Charlotte Square and then with his second wife Marjorie Henderson, at Dean Park, Broomieknowe) he returned throughout his life to Kintyre to paint.

His deep passion for his native Kintyre is apparent from the number of painting seasons he spent here, returning year after year with his large family for weeks on end.  There is hardly a settlement in the whole peninsula where he didn’t rent a house for the season, and some locations such Campbeltown, Machrihanish and Carradale he returned to again and again, almost as a second home.

He was inspired by the brilliant light and atmosphere of the sky, sea and landscape within the fishing communities of these West Coast locations.  One can discern the intangible “Kintyre magic” in many of his works. 

Previously most of  his commissions were in oils, usually painted over a considerable time period and worked up in his large studio in Edinburgh, often using his own children as models to be placed in the landscape.  However, it was at Machrihanish in 1876 that he began serious watercolour painting en plein air.  The loose often cursory and immediate treatment of water colour technique eventually became translated into his works in oil (even painting enormous canvases outdoors and obtaining chiaroscuro i.e. tones and shades, with the use of pure colour to depict the effects of light.

From his early highly finished literal translations of a subject, often in allegorical form, his later works became almost pure abstractions of space, light and form.  The children that often populate his pictures became almost invisible as they formed part of the landscape, leaving behind the Victorian sentimentality of some of his earlier works..  However, these developments brought some criticism of lack of finish from some in the contemporary art establishment, but he never lost faith in his evolving methods and became heralded as one of Britain’s truly great land and seascape artists.

McTaggart’s output of work was enormous (well over 2000 works are listed by Caw) and whilst he also painted in a number of locations on the East Coast of Scotland, such as Dundee, Carnoustie and East Lothian Coast (where many of his best patrons lived), most of his major landscape paintings were undertaken using Kintyre settings – ‘The Past and Present’ 1860 (Kilchousland), ‘Machrihanish Bay’ 1878, ‘The Wave’ 1881 (Machrihanish), ‘The Coming of St. Columba’ 1895 (Machrihansih), ‘Dawn at Sea Homeward’ 1891 (Kilbrannan Sound), ‘The Storm 1890, ‘The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship’ 1895 and ‘The Emigrants’ 1891-94 (all  Carradale).
McTaggart never missed an RSA exhibition between 1855-95, exhibiting almost 200 pictures, two-thirds landscapes and one-third portraits.  He also exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and no doubt would have enjoyed even greater success and much wider recognition had he followed his contemporaries to settle in London or Paris. 

His devotion to his family, his emotional ties with his Gaelic/Scottish roots, together with his continuing commercial success and position in the Scottish painting establishment, kept him tied to Scotland.  He continued working right up until his death in 1910 and is buried in Newington Churchyard, Edinburgh.

Many of his major works are now in public ownership, there being good collections in the art galleries of Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.  Old Campbeltown Library/Museum holds two of his pictures.

His legacy remains and his reputation continues to flourish in the Scottish art world and as an ambassador for Scotland, particularly his native Kintyre and the West Coast.  Almost anywhere you care to visit on the coast of Kintyre you will be stepping into a William McTaggart picture.

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