My featured artist today, William McTaggart, was born in the rural hamlet of Aros, in the parish of Campbeltown, a Scottish town on the Kintyre Peninsula, on October 25th, 1835. He was born into a family of crofters. He was one of nine children of Dugald and Barbara Brodie McTaggart (née Brolachan). His father was a farm labourer and it was said that young William would fashion models from the clay which was prevalent in the ground around the farm. In 1847 his parents arranged for him to become an apprentice to Doctor Buchanan, an apothecary in Campbeltown. During his apprenticeship he would wile away his spare time sketching and painting, often they would be portraits of the shop’s customers. Doctor Buchanan must have been impressed by his hard work and his love of art as in 1852, he arranged for William to go to Glasgow and gave him a letter of introduction to the established Scottish portrait artist Daniel MacNee.
MacNee was also impressed by William McTaggart and began to give him some lessons in artistic techniques. He advised the young man to go to Edinburgh and seek a formal art education. William took the advice, much to the consternation of his father, and enrolled as a student at the Trustees’ Academy, an establishment which dated back to 1760 and which, in 1907 became the Edinburgh College of Art. William McTaggart spent seven years at this Edinburgh art school and studied under Robert Scott Lauder, the Scottish Historical painter. It was just what young McTaggart needed. Here he had found a sense of enthusiasm towards art rather than a cynicism towards the subject which he had encountered at home. No longer where his artistic aspirations looked upon as being foolish. He was now not alone when it came to his love of art and had the added advantage of having a skilled tutor to guide him. This change of environment acted as a stimulus for his enthusiastic nature. His success at the Academy was down to his artistic talent and his strength of character.
At the Trustees Academy he won various awards including first prizes for both painting life models and painting antique casts. During his long stay he also attended some of the anatomy classes of John Goodsir at Edinburgh University. In 1857, along with Paul Chalmers, a fellow Trustees’ Academy student who became a well-known portrait painter, William travelled down to Manchester to visit the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition which comprised over 16,000 works split into various categories, such as Pictures by Ancient Masters, Pictures by Modern Masters, British Portraits and Miniatures, Water Colour Drawings, Sketches and Original Drawings (Ancient), Engravings, Illustrations of Photography, Works of Oriental Art, Varied Objects of Oriental Art, and Sculpture. It was a monumental exhibition remains and believed to be the largest art exhibition ever to be held in the with over 16,000 works on display.
In numerous biographies of artists who studied in Paris they often travelled to Brittany during their summer vacations but for aspiring Scottish artists studying in their homeland they would often spend their summer holidays across the Irish Sea in Ireland. Like their French counterparts, whilst enjoying their summer vacation they would paint and try and sell their artwork before returning back home to the new term which had to be paid for. William McTaggart’s initial painting were portraits and in 1855 he had his first painting, a watercolour portrait of two ladies, unveiled at an Edinburgh exhibition, although previously he had some of his works shown at the Royal Hibernian Society.
One of McTaggart’s early paintings, completed around 1860, was The Past and The Present depicting the cheery purity of young children and was probably influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters who favoured this type of subject. McTaggart received the commission for this work from the Glaswegian art collector Robert Craig. The painting depicts a group of five children of varying age playing innocently in the graveyard of the ruined Kilchousland church on a sunny afternoon. They show no fear with regards the area which holds the remains of those who have passed away. The depiction of their innocence negates any thoughts that this is a vanitas painting and yet the title would seem to highlight the transience of life.
After a three-year engagement, William McTaggart married Mary Holmes in Glasgow on June 9th 1863. They would go on to have six children. He and his young wife went to Fairlie, a picturesque village which backed on to green pastoral hills which surrounded beautiful wooded glens, on the Ayrshire coast a few miles from Largs. From Fairlie the couple went to London on a brief visit about the end of July, when Mrs. McTaggart met some of her husband’s early friends, and they visited the Royal Academy Exhibition. However, for William McTaggart, London was not for him and the couple returned to live in Edinburgh. Soon his family increased and during the following summers he would take his wife and children on family holidays by the sea on the East coast of Scotland, visiting places such as Carnoustie and Broughty Ferry, where he painted many of the local scenes and soon gathered a number of commissions from the local people
In 1870, McTaggart and his family went on holiday to the small village of Kilkerran, a few miles south of Campbeltown, and close to his birthplace. It was a working holiday as William loved to paint. From that year on, William and his family would return to Kintyre visiting Machrihanish, Tarbert, Carradale or Southend. He was a prolific painter and his output was tremendous. His paintings were much sought after and commanded high prices. It is believed at that time he was probably the best open-air painter in Britain.
In 1875 McTaggart completed his painting The Village, Whitehouse. It was exhibited in the London Royal Academy under the title Twas Autumn and Sunshine arose on the Way. It was one of many McTaggart paintings which depicted the picturesque small village. It was a tiring journey for the artist to get to Whitehouse as he had to go to Campbeltown and then catch the Campbeltown-Tarbert coach and to achieve all this he had to leave his holiday home at 5.a.m. It was the last time he exhibited at the Royal Academy as he reasoned that he preferred to be first in his own country rather than be second in any other.
As a student at the Trustees’ Academy, William McTaggart was awarded several prizes. He also began to exhibit his work at the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy and in 1870 applied to become a full Academician. To achieve this, he had to pass an interview and submit a diploma piece. McTaggart’s diploma piece was his 1869 painting entitled Dora. The painting illustrates a scene from Tennyson’s 1835 poem of the same name. Dora, the heroine of the poem, waits in the field for the old farmer to acknowledge his grandchild beneath a blaze of summer sunshine. Dora’s ploy here is to take off the boy’s sun-hat and put a little chain of wildflowers around his head instead, to make him look appealing (although in the poem itself, she puts the flowers round his hat). The grandfather can be seen approaching in the distance. Fortunately, in the end, the child does bring his grandfather round.
The poem reads:
“…But when the morrow came, she rose and took
The child once more, and sat upon the mound;
And made a little wreath of all the flowers
That grew about, and tied it round his hat
To make him pleasing in her uncle’s eye…”
William McTaggart was made an Academician in 1870. The painting is part of the Scottish National Gallery and is regarded as one of the gems among the Scottish pictures.
Most of his early works featured figure painting with him concentrating on depictions of children. A fine example of this early work was McTaggart’s 1881 painting entitled Summer Breezes. The painting depicts the two daughters of Sir. Thomas McCall Anderson who was a noted and pioneering dermatologist at the Glasgow Western Infirmary and later Regius Professor of Medicine. The background for the picture was painted from sketches made by McTaggart at Machrihanish in August 1880. His biographer John Craw summed up the painting in his 1917 book William McTaggart R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W., A Biography and an Appreciation. He wrote:
“…Than the last there is, indeed, nothing more exquisite in the fascinating kind of child portraiture he had made peculiarly his own. Here the two little daughters of Sir T. McCall Anderson, playing barefoot upon the sunlit shore, are grouped beside a great rock. One child, dressed in pale blue and pink, leans against the tawny and golden ridge upon which her smaller white-pinafored sister is perched, and their curly heads come together as they look with delight and wonder at a shell held by the other girl. Beside them, but neglected for the new-found treasure, a rough-haired terrier turns his attention seawards, where not far off a cobble at the salmon nets bobs buoyantly upon the waves, which heave divinely blue and free beneath a brilliant summer sky. Delightful as story, the pictorial treatment is no less charming. The design is happy and pervaded by a rare sense of beauty, the handling and drawing easy, graceful, suggestive, the colour lovely on its high-pitched but full harmony, the whole effect remarkable not only for vividness of lighting but for silvery clearness of tone…”
………………to be continued.