Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/McTaggart, William

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McTAGGART, WILLIAM (1836–1910), artist, born on 25 Oct 1835 at Arcs, a croft on the edge of Durry Moss in the Laggan of Kintyre, Argyllshire, was third son in the family of five brothers and three sisters of Dugald McTaggart, a crofter, by his wife Barbara Brolochan. When the father's croft was absorbed in a larger farm, he moved into Campbeltown. There William attended the school founded by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in Scotland. After receiving a somid elementary education, he became apprentice when thirteen in the drug dispensary of Dr. Buchanan, who proved a wise counsellor and a kind friend. Juvenile attempts in modelling and surreptitious sketches of local characters or portrait drawings of friends early displayed an artistic impulse, but so removed was he from all art influences and effort that at first he thought he had discovered portraiture for himself. Dr. Buchanan lent him books, encouraged his efforts to paint, and showed him portraits by Scottish artists in the houses of well-to-do patients. At sixteen McTaggart, despite the discouragement of parents and friends, went to Glasgow, to devote himself to painting, with an introduction from Buchanan to Daniel Macnee [q. v.], the portrait painter. After a short stay in Glasgow he proceeded to Edinburgh, where, on Macnee's recommendation, he was admitted (19 April 1852) a pupil at the Trustees' Academy. Robert Scott Lauder [q. v.] had just been appointed headmaster, and McTaggart joined the talented group of students which included W. Q. Orchardson [q. v. Suppl. II], John Pettie [q. v.], G. P. Chalmers [q. v.], Tom Graham [q. v. Suppl. II], and John MacWhirter [q. v. Suppl. II]. In this coterie McTaggart soon took a conspicuous place, and the ardent friendships which he then formed were lifelong. Supporting himself in Edinburgh by portrait-sketching, often in chalk, he spent the summer vacations from 1853 to 1856 on similar work in Dublin. In 1857 he went home to Campbeltown, where he painted genre pictures which attracted attention when shown at the Royal Scottish Academy, where he first exhibited in 1855. Those of the following year were even more successful, and led to his election as associate on 9 Nov. 1859. He was only twenty-four years of age, and was still enrolled as one of Lauder's pupils.

At this time and for some years afterwards his subjects were chiefly drawn from the everyday life and scenery of the parish, half-landward and half-seaboard, in which he had been reared. These were varied occasionally by motives derived from Scottish song or modern poetry. McTaggart went to Paris in 1860 with Pettie and Tom Graham, spent a few weeks' holiday on the Riviera in 1876, and in 1882 made a fortnight's trip to the capitals of central Europe with his friend J. G. Orchar of Dundee. Otherwise he was never abroad. Chosen academician of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1870, he took for a time a lively interest in its affairs, exhibiting regularly there until 1895. At the Royal Academy in London he exhibited eleven pictures between 1866 and 1875. In 1878, the year of its foundation, he became vice-president of the Royal Scottish Water Colour Society.

From about 1870, when McTaggart spent several summers at Tarbert on Loch Fyne, incidents of sea-faring figured more frequently in his work, although landscape and rural life were not abandoned. Later he began to paint the open sea. At Machrihanish, Carnoustie, Carradale and Southend he produced many splendid pictures of the sea, sometimes in its utter loneliness, but more often associated with episodes in child-play or in the fisher's perilous calling. Up till 1889 McTaggart continued to paint portraits of men and women, and in the case of a child or a family group it became his practice to unify the group or to give significance to the action of a single figure by fixing upon some simple incident — fishing in a highland burn, gathering flowers, playing on the shore, or idling on the sea-braes — thus investing the portrait with the spontaneity and charm of a picture. In 1889 McTaggart retired from Edinburgh to Broomieknowe, a beautifully situated village about six miles away, where he built a large studio in the garden. There he lived in comparative isolation, devoting himself to the expression of his original views of nature. His later work was divided between landscape and the sea. Figure incident became less prominent and was more closely knit with its setting.

In later years he rarely left Broomieknowe except for an annual summer visit to Kintyre. His Kberty-loving temperament ultimately alienated him from the Scottish Academy, of which he was latterly a member in little more than name, but he maintained his connection with the Royal Scottish Water Colour Society, and, always interested in younger contemporaries, he became a vice-president of the Society of Scottish Artists in 1898. Save with these two societies, he rarely exhibited in his later years. In 1901 an exhibition of thirty-two of his more recent pictures was organised by Messrs. Aitken, Dott & Son in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee, and widened his reputation, although it did not spread beyond Scotland.

He died at his house, Dean Park, Broomieknowe, on 2 April 1910, and was buried in Newington cemetery, Edinburgh, three days later. He was married twice: (1) on 9 June 1863 to Mary Brolochan (d. 1884), daughter of Hugh Holmes, builder, Campbeltown; and (2) on 6 April 1886 to Marjory, eldest daughter of Joseph Henderson [q. v. Suppl. II]. Of the first marriage two sons and two daughters survived him, and of the second two sons and four daughters. Of several good portraits of him probably the best are by G. P. Chalmers (about 1870) and by himself (1892), both in the possession of Mrs. McTaggart, and by Henry W. Kerr, R.S.A. (1908), in the possession of his eldest son.

McTaggart's painting gradually gained in expressiveness and power. In his later work he subordinated the minor facts to the broader effects of reality, and expressed the inner spirit of nature rather than its merely visual appearances. This tendency revealed itself first in water-colour. Soon his oil pictures also expressed that sensitiveness to the sparkle and flicker of light and the brilliance and purity of colour, and that apprehension of the rhythmical movement and the emotional significance of nature, which were the essential qualities of his gift. Quite independently McTaggart anticipated the discoveries regarding light and movement commonly associated with the French impressionists, but, while he shared their intense interest in the appearances of reality, he combined with that an imaginative passion and a refined pictorial intention which transformed his work and made it art of a high creative order.

[Private information and personal knowledge; exhibition catalogues; R.S.A. Reports; Art Journal, April 1894; Good Words, November 1899; Studio, July 1909; introduction to catalogue of McTaggart exhibition, 1901; notes to Catalogue of Thirty-six Paintings by William McTaggart, R.S.A., 1907; J. L. Caw, Scottish Painting, Past and Present, pt. ii. chap. iv. 1908; E. Pinnington, G. P. Chalmers and the Art of his Time, 1896; Martin Hardie, John Pettie, R.A., 1908; Manchester Guardian, 4 April 1910.]

J. L. C.