William McTaggart, by (William) Walker Hodgson. Pencil and black wash, 1892. NPG 4041(2). © National Portrait Gallery, London (by kind permission).
William McTaggart (1835-1910) was born into a a crofting family at Aros in Kintyre, and educated in Campbeltown when his father moved there to work for a distillery. Apprenticed at twelve to the drug dispensary of Dr John Buchanan, he received the encouragement he needed to develop his artistic talents: "In 1852, aged sixteen, he left for Glasgow, against parental advice but armed with an introduction from Buchanan to the portrait painter Daniel Macnee" (Macmurdo). He was quickly admitted to the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, where he found himself in a pool of talent that included some of the best young up-and-coming artists (including sculptors) of his day. He first exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1855, and by the time he was twenty-four he was an associate. Marriage and family life (and perhaps too the tragedy of losing a little daughter in the first of his two marriages) brought him a keen interest in depicting children in the natural landscape, often at the coast, an interest reinforced by his enjoyment of Dutch artists like Josef Israels, whom he met at The Hague in 1882 (think of Israels' lovely Children of the Sea of 1877, which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam). Although he has been described as a "highly individual figure" (Lambourne 482), he was also touched by Constable, the Pre-Raphaelites and, not surprisingly, the English marine landscape painter James Hook; another influence was his own work in illustrating scenes from Sir Walter Scott: "However experimentally 'impressionistic' McTaggart's landscapes became in due course, at the heart of his work was a commitment to narrative," writes Murdo Macdonald.
Having lost his first wife in 1884, McTaggart remarried in 1886, and started a new family — he would be survived by ten children, two sons and two daughters from his first marriage, and two sons and four daughters from his second. As an academician of the Royal Scottish Academy from 1870, he was already a central figure in the Scottish art scene, but this new phase of life gave another impetus to his painting. This was especially so after the McTaggarts moved to Broomieknowe, a small Midlothian village just to the south of Edinburgh, in 1889. Some of his best work followed. His reputation was such that there was now a demand for him to be better known over the border. In 1896, an art critic wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette,
The mention of Scottish painters reminds us that there has not yet been a representative exhibition in London of the work, and especially of the water-colour work, of Mr.William McTaggart. A generation before the "New Impressionism" and the "New ldealism" had become the fashion, Mr. McTaggart was a "New Impressionist" and a "New Idealist" on his own account. Of course, his fame in Scotland is not a thing of yesterday. Like Rossetti and many another, he has never been a lover of exhibitions. The people who have bought his pictures have bought them to live with, and not many examples have strayed acrcss the border. Once, so the story goes, he was rejected at the Academy, and twenty years ago. in his native land, some of the critics gravely doubted his sanity. Both critics and public have learned something since then. It is surely time that his pictures were seen in London. A few dozens of his water- colours, those painted between 1860 and 1880 for choice, would be a revelation to English artists. If no dealer can do this during the present season, why does not the New English Art Club take the matter in hand? They would have all the art world of London crowding to their doors within a week.
In 1899, McTaggart became the vice-president of the Society of Scottish Artists, and on the centenary of his birth, in 1935, there was an exhibition of his work, at last, at the Tate in London. It was expected to be "something of a revelation to those who had been inclined to regard his northern reputation as a matter of regional patriotism," said David Fincham at the time, but apparently his stature in Scotland was inadequately acknowledged, because biographer, James Lewis Caw, wrote to The Times to explain that he was widely recognised as "the most notable Scottish painter of his day." In 1989, there was also a major exhibition of McTaggart's work at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. Perhaps he is now due for another one in London. — Jacqueline Banerjee
"Art Notes." The Pall Mall Gazette, 17 October 1896, issue 9848. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900. Web. 1 November 2016.
Caw, James Lewis. William McTaggart, R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W.; a biography and an appreciation. Glasgow, J. Maclehose and Sons, 1917. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 1 November 2016.
_____. "William McTaggart's Work." Times, 3 June 1935: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 1 November 2016.
Fincham, David. "Centenary Exhibition of Works by William McTaggart" (Past Event). Tate. Web. 1 November 2016.
Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.
Macdonald, Murdo. "McTaggart, William (1835–1910), painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 1 November 2016.
Scruton, David. William McTaggart: Landscape, Meaning and Technique. Doctoral Thesis for the University of St. Andrews, Scotland 1991. Available via the University's Repository. Web. 1 November 2016.
Created 1 November 2016