William McTaggart

William McTaggart (1835-1910) is one of Scotland’s most popular and celebrated landscape painters, who created powerful and enduring images of Scotland. The artist was born at Aros in Kintyre in 1835 and his upbringing in this rural setting would remain with him for the rest of his life. At twelve years old McTaggart was apprenticed to the Glasgow apothecary Dr John Buchanan, an important figure in his early career who recognised and encouraged the boy’s artistic talent. Buchanan introduced McTaggart to Glasgow artist Daniel Macnee, who suggested McTaggart seek a formal art education.

William McTaggart, A Life Study of a Seated Nude Male Model, 1850s
William McTaggart, Study of the Cast of the Venus of Milo, 1850s

As a passionate and driven young man, McTaggart moved to Edinburgh at the age of sixteen, much against his father’s wishes. He entered the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh in 1852, and studied under Robert Scott Lauder, who taught him to draw and paint ‘in the round’ from antique casts and life models. In A Life Study of a Seated Nude Male Model, 1850s, he explores the gradations of light that would later characterise his Scottish landscapes. At the Trustees Academy he won various awards including first prizes for both painting from life and from the antique. Even as a student he developed a career in portraiture and Pre-Raphaelite genre painting, travelling to England and Ireland to complete commissions. During this time McTaggart became a regular exhibitor at the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) in Edinburgh and the Royal Academy in London. The young artist achieved early success in 1859 when he was made an associate member of the RSA aged just twenty-four; eleven years later he became a full member.

McTaggart remained loyal to his Scottish heritage throughout his career; in the early 1860s, when so many of his fellow pupils at the Trustees Academy had departed to London, he refused to follow their example. McTaggart’s friend, the architect and writer T. S. Robertson asked him whether or not he had thought of joining them, but received the answer, ‘No, I would rather be first in my own country than second in any other.’

William McTaggart, The Bait Gatherers, 1890
William McTaggart, The Storm, 1890

From the 1880s McTaggart painted the majority of his largest canvases out of doors. His broad, expressive handling of paint and en plein air technique has often been likened to his European contemporaries, the French Impressionists. However, it is now thought that the flickering highlights, varied brushstrokes and palette knife textures of the landscape painter John Constable had a more profound and lasting influence on McTaggart’s practice. McTaggart continued to paint up until his death in 1910, aged seventy-five and was buried in Newington Cemetery in Edinburgh. Many of his major works are now held in public art collections across the UK including Tate and The National Galleries of Scotland.

Children and the Cycle of Life

McTaggart is well recognised today for his paintings of children, a subject he returned to again and again throughout his career. While still a student at the Trustees Academy he began drawing and painting children on commission to support himself financially. An early example is the chalk drawing Two Girls and a Dog, 1857, resembling the work of Scottish artist Daniel Macnee.

William McTaggart, Two Girls and a Dog, 1857
Sir Daniel Macnee, Mrs John Aitken, 1849

McTaggart also painted allegorical scenes featuring children which were strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, whose work he would have encountered in 1857 at the great Manchester Treasures Exhibition. Much like the Pre-Raphaelites, McTaggart’s early career paintings were highly detailed and often contained haunting, poetic messages.

William McTaggart, The Past and the Present, around 1860

The carefree innocence of childhood was also a popular subject for many of the Pre-Raphaelites and one which McTaggart went on to explore in a number of paintings, including The Past and the Present, around 1860, commissioned by the Glaswegian art collector Robert Craig. Set in the graveyard of the ruined church of Kilchousland, McTaggart’s children play naively alongside broken gravestones in the sunlit afternoon, unaware of the inevitable passing of time and their own mortality.

William McTaggart, Spring, 1864
William McTaggart, Autumn,1863

Spring, 1864 and its companion Autumn (private collction), were painted for Dundee textile manufacturer and amateur artist G.B. Simpson. Much like the French Impressionists, these paintings captured the light and scenery of a particular season. However, unlike the Impressionists, McTaggart’s paintings were symbolic and carefully planned rather than being immediate and directly representational. Spring celebrates youth and vitality through young children, spring lambs and flowers in a morning light, while Autumn contrasts young children with an old lady in her later years of life. McTaggart wrote to Simpson, ‘I should like to have a figure in the Autumn of life and some children returned from gathering brambles meeting'. He later added, ‘I have got the effect of late afternoon on the figures and landscape which I think will give expression to the whole thing.'

William McTaggart, The Young Fishers, Dated 1876
William McTaggart, By Summer Seas, Dated 1890 - 1896

Children continued to be a popular subject for McTaggart as his painting style evolved into a more expressive, immediate style. They gradually became more enmeshed with their surrounding landscape with less focus on fine detail, as seen in The Young Fishers, 1876 and the later By Summer Seas, 1890-96. Although the emphasis had changed, the subject continued to be a source of fascination and wonder for McTaggart well into his later years.

Fishing and Rural Communities

The 1870s marked a period of transition in McTaggart’s paintings, when both his style and his subject matter underwent a dramatic transformation. His Pre-Raphaelite close-up pictures of children are replaced by images of fishing boats and fisher folk, or huge expanses of fields, while the paint surface breaks out into a wild tangle of streaks, splashes and dabs. Tone was increasingly replaced by a rich awareness of colour, surface and texture.

William McTaggart, Sketch of Skiffs in a Harbour with a Figure Hanging out Nets to Dry
William McTaggart, Harvest Moon, about 1899

Scottish fishing industries and rural life became a source of fascination for McTaggart and he regularly visited both the East and West Coasts of Scotland on drawing and painting trips. On the East Coast he visited Crail in Fife, Westhaven and Carnoustie and on the West Arran, Tarbert and Iona. He made his beloved home region of Kintyre his base, returning there summer after summer on family holidays. His energetic, sparse studies from this time reveal a fascination with fishing vessels (called skiffs) and sailing boats, such as Sketch of Boats and Sketch of Herring Fishermen, both about 1883.

William McTaggart, Sketch of boats, about 1883
William McTaggart, Sketch of herring fishermen, about 1883

While land and seascapes had taken centre stage in his work, people still continued to play a vital role in McTaggart’s paintings. He was fascinated by fishing communities, where people co-existed in close harmony with nature. While the figures in his paintings were often shown at work, as in Off to the Fishing, 1871 and The Bait Gatherers, 1879, they appear caught up in the moment, enjoying the freedom, wind and air of the countryside or the ocean. He shows great respect for the dangerous work they perform, and he also often notes specific features of their craft, such as the boat’s port and vessel numbers that are unique to each one. These were real boats and real people that belonged to a specific community.

William McTaggart, Off to the Fishing, about 1871

Images of workers at the coast were popular with the French Barbizon and Hague Schools of painting. McTaggart was influenced by Hague painters David Adolphe Constant Artz and Jozef Israëls who both exhibited at the RSA in the 1860s and 1870s. The Barbizon and Hague painters often depicted figures performing backbreaking tasks, but McTaggart’s workers were more at ease, frequently positioned in relaxed or horizontal poses. Where McTaggart and The Hague School painters’ ideas converge is in their depictions of children wading at the water’s edge or engaged in play or playful work, such as On the White Sands, 1870 or Two Children Paddling, 1877. McTaggart visited Israëls at The Hague during a short tour of Europe in 1882.

Jozef Israëls, A Sea Urchin, about 1880
William McTaggart, Detail of Two Children Paddling, dated 1877

Weather and Seasons

The changing nature of the weather and the seasons fascinated McTaggart throughout his career. He often gave his paintings seasonal titles to indicate the time of year such as Spring, and sometimes even the time of day as in Autumn Evening. In his self-portrait he added the subtitle A Study of Oak Leaves in Autumn. He very much saw life in terms of seasons, with youth and spring being synonymous, and later life as being a person’s autumn years.

William McTaggart, Autumn Evening, Broomieknowe, 1905
William McTaggart, Detail of A Study of Oak Leaves in Autumn (Self-portrait), dated 1892

Light, space and air became increasingly important to him from the 1870s as his paintings evolved into a more painterly and abstract style. During this time McTaggart exhibited regularly with the RSA and the Glasgow Institute and began to receive recognition in the national press.

William McTaggart, Quiet Sunset, Machrihanish
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Furnace, 1886

McTaggart was fascinated by his native of Kintyre, with its ever-changing light and translucent water. After 1876 he returned there regularly on family holidays and the place became the subject in many of his most important paintings. Quiet Sunset, Machrihanish, captures the expansive light of Machrihanish Bay’s unbroken horizon during a still, evening sunset. Towards the end of the 1870s McTaggart became increasingly aware of French painting, and also the tonal work of the American artist James Abbot McNeal Whistler. The spare, economical marks and luminous light of his Nocturnes ripple through McTaggart’s sunset.

William McTaggart, The Storm, 1890

In the 1880s, McTaggart’s coastal works shifted towards the perils of the sea, particularly in bad weather. The Storm, 1890, is one of McTaggart’s best known and most powerful paintings. It was worked up in McTaggart’s studio, but based on a smaller version painted outside at Carradale in Kintyre in 1883. The painting captures the power of the thunderous sky, lashing wind and turbulent sea with energetic brushwork and bold colour. Although the figures are almost completely lost in swirls of expressive brushstrokes, their frail but heroic resistance against the massive, violent power of the sea becomes the most important subject of the painting. A similar struggle between man and nature can be seen in Sailing Boat on a Stormy Sea and The Equinoctial Gales. Crail Harbour, 1884.

William McTaggart, Sailing Boat on a Stormy Sea
William McTaggart, The Equinoctial Gales. Crail Harbour, 1884

The free expression and wild weather in McTaggart’s paintings have been compared with the French Impressionists. McTaggart may have seen their work at Durant Ruel’s exhibition in London in 1883 and it is significant that he began painting even his largest works out of doors after this time. However in 1885, the critic Walter Armstrong compared Impressionism with the Scottish School of ‘rough painting', which seemed more applicable to McTaggart. The British painter John Constable was also a source of inspiration to McTaggart, who owned the 1845 edition of Leslie’s Memoirs of John Constable. Constable’s attachment to his native countryside, his interest in human associations with the land and his expressive observations of the weather were all attributes that greatly appealed to McTaggart.

Historical Subjects

During the 1880s and 1890s McTaggart was occupied by a series of nostalgic and historical subjects, but he was always on some level examining man’s relationship with the environment. He made three major paintings exploring the departure of Scottish emigrants to America. The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship, 1895 was the last of this series. McTaggart had been born to Gaelic speaking parents, and his sister Barbara and her husband were among the vast number of people who emigrated from the West Coast of Scotland to America and Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. McTaggart felt a deep personal concern for the draining away of the Celtic population from their homeland and painted the subject with great pathos. The issue of land ownership, eviction and emigration was hugeley important at the time McTaggart painted this. In 1883 Alexander Mackenzie's The history of the Highland clearances was published, and 1886 saw the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act passed, that effectivley ended the Highland Clearences by graning crofters security of tenure.

William McTaggart, The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship, 1895

The emigrant ship is seen here moving away into a turbulent, stormy sky, with desolate clan members left behind on the shore. His broad handling of paint captures textures of sky, sea and land and figures are absorbed by their surrounding landscape. One critic in 1899 wrote, ‘It is the epic of depopulation, emigration and of quests in foreign lands. It tells of laments abroad for “my ain countrie”, and of breaking hearts at home.’ McTaggart himself would have personally understood the huge emotional upheaval experienced by both the travellers and their realtives, as his own sister had departed for a new life abroad. Above the ship, in the stormy sky he included a rainbow, a traditional symbol of hope and the beginning of a new era.

William McTaggart, The Coming of Saint Columba, 1895

McTaggart was extremely interested in his Celtic roots, and the area of Kintyre where he was born has abundant visible remnants of its past. In 1897, a number of celebrations (including a Roman Catholic pilgrimage) took place on Iona to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Saintt Columba's death. Saint Columba had arrived in Scotland from Ireland in AD 563, and first landed in Kintyre. McTaggart began exploring this subject in a new series that included The Coming of St Columba, 1895. The episode depicted in this painting is not Columba’s arrival at Iona, but his first reaching Scotland, via Kintyre.  

The painting captures a vibrant, early morning light just west of Machrihanish, celebrating Columba’s status as the forerunner of Celtic civilization and culture in Scotland. The location McTaggart chose is most likely Dunaverty Bay at Southend, with its distinctive large rock protruding out into the sea. McTaggart was born only a few miles from Southend and would have known the area very well. Saint Columba's Chapel lies within Keil Cemetery, just outside the village of Southend. In the churchyard there is a stone with two footprints that, according to legend, are the footsteps of Saint Columba. It is particularly fitting that McTaggart used his intimate knowledge of the place to give an accurate setting to his scene.


McTaggart died of heart failure at his home, Dean Park, in Broomieknowe, Lasswade on 2 April 1910. His death received attention in the national press, and his funeral was attended by a number of his contemporaries, including Sir James Guthrie, then the President of the Royal Scottish Academy. McTaggart's eldest daughter Annie (1864-1949) had married James Caw, the first Director of the National Gallery of Scotland, who went on to be McTaggart's biographer. His 1917 book on McTaggart's life and work is a valuable source of information by both a family member and art historian, and remains one of the most important sources of information on one of Scotland's most well-known and innovative artists. In the Postscript, Caw described McTaggart as an artist 'In love with the wonder and bloom of the world, it was life, or rather the impression of life created in the mind or evoked in the imagination by nature and man's relationship to her, that he tried to capture and recreate by his art.'