Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/MacWhirter, John
MACWHIRTER, JOHN (1839–1911), landscape painter, was born at Slateford, near Edinburgh, on 27 March 1839. His father, George MacWliirter, a descendant of an old Ayrshire family, was a paper manufacturer at Colinton, but had achieved some distinction as a draughtsman, geologist and botanist. His mother, Agnes Laing, was George MacWhirter's second wife, and sister of Major Alexander Gordon Laing [q. v.], the African explorer. John was the fourth of six children (two daughters and four sons). His sister, Agnes MacWhirter (1833–1882), was a still-life painter of considerable repute. He was sent to school at Colinton, but his father dying when the boy was eleven, he was apprenticed at the ago of thirteen to Oliver & Boyd, booksellers at Edinburgh. He left his employment after five months and entered the Trustees' Academy, then conducted by Robert Scott Lauder [q. v.]. Of his fellow students William McTaggart [q. V. Suppl. II], John Pettie [q. v. Suppl. I], William Quiller Orchardson [q. v. Suppl. II], and Tom Graham [q. v. Suppl. II] became lifelong friends. Apart from the excellent training of his masters, MacWhirter devoted himself from the first to outdoor sketching and direct study of nature, and made such rapid progress that as early as 1854 one of his pictures, 'Old Cottage at Braid,' was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy.
In the next year he undertook the first of what proved to be annual journeys to the Continent, visiting on this occasion some of the old cities of Germany, Tyrol, and the Salzkammergut. A picture of Lake Gosan, which was a fruit of this journey, was bought by the Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland. In the course of his many travels MacWhirter visited Italy, Sicily, Switzerland, Austria, Turkey, Norway, and the United States, ever in search of material for his busy brush. In 1867 he exhibited at Edinburgh six pictures of Rome and the Campagna and was elected associate of the Royal Scottish Academy. Two years earlier he had made his first appearance at the Royal Academy of London, with 'The Temple of Vesta.' This was followed in 1868 by 'Old Edinburgh: Night.' In 1869 the artist moved to London, and remained there for the rest of his life. In 1879 he was elected A.R.A.; in 1882 he became hon. R.S.A.; and in 1893 he was made R.A. In 1901 he published a book on 'Landscape Painting in Water-Colours.' He died at 1 Abbey Road, St. John's Wood, on 28 Jan. 1911, and was buried at Golder's Green. MacWhirter married in 1872 Katherine, daughter of Prof. Menzies of Edinburgh University. He had two sons and two daughters, one of whom married Charles Sims, A.R.A.
MacWhirter owed his popularity largely to the tinge of sentiment which invested his otherwise naturalistic landscapes with a certain literary significance, and which is reflected in the fanciful titles he gave to his landscapes and studies of trees: 'The Lady of the Woods' (1876), 'The Three Graces' (1878), 'The Lord of the Glen' (1880), 'The Three Witches' (1886), 'Crabbed Age and Youth' (1899), 'A Fallen Giant' (1901). MacWhirter is represented at the National Gallery of British Art by 'June in the Austrian Tyrol.' In the Royal Academy diploma gallery is his 'Nature's Archway.' 'A Fallen Giant' is at the municipal art gallery, Pietermaritzburg, Natal; 'Spindrift' at the Royal Holloway College; and 'Constantinople and the Golden Horn' at the Manchester municipal gallery. MacWhirter is also represented at the Walker art gallery, Liverpool, the Derby corporation art gallery, and the municipal galleries of Dundee, Aberdeen, and Hull.
A portrait of the artist as a young man (1871), by John Pettie, R.A., and a later one in water-colours by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, R.A., are in the possession of his family. MacWhirter was also painted by Mr. Wolfram Onslow Ford and by Mr. J. Bowie.
[Fifty Years of Art, part 7 (Virtue & Co.) 5 The Art of J. MacWhirter, by M. H. Spielmann (F. Hanfstaengl); John MacWhirter, R.A., by W. Macdonald Sinclair, D.D. (Art Journal Christmas Annual, 1903); Martin Hardie's Life of Pettie; J. L. Caw's Scottish Painting, 1908; private information.]