William McTaggart RSA (1835-1910)

William McTaggart RSA
William McTaggart RSA

Several years ago, Neil Stewart received a telephone call from a gentleman called Neil McTaggart, an Edinburgh lawyer, who asked him if he would be interested in accepting a donation to the archive of the Bonnyrigg & Lasswade Local History Society. He explained that he had some family photographs and other mementoes of his family, who once lived in Bonnyrigg.

He said that he was representing the McTaggart Family Trust and that he was a grandson of the famous Scottish artist William McTaggart RSA.

Neil Stewart had heard of William McTaggart but knew little of his work, so he was very keen to meet Mr McTaggart and discuss the matter with him.

He was amazed at the quantity and quality of the material offered by Mr McTaggart and readily accepted it on behalf of the local history society. He did not know at that time, that this would lead to further donations from the McTaggart Family Trust.

Family photographs and original pencil sketches by one of the artist’s daughters, Miss Betty McTaggart, followed and latterly a framed original drawing by the artist’s son-in-law, Sir James Caw – who lived at Edenkerry, Broomieknowe, Lasswade.

Mr McTaggart told Neil that two of his aunts, who had lived together at a house in Longniddry, East Lothian had recently died and in clearing their home, he had come across much of the material. He had offered some of it to other members of the family, but no one really wanted it. He therefore decided that it would be a good idea to see if a local or family history group in the Bonnyrigg & Lasswade area would be interested in having it, with a view to making it available to their local community.

Although much research into the McTaggart family history has been done, Neil still feels that there is much more to be learned and that it may take some time to complete the job. In 1999, with the help of Midlothian Libraries (Local Studies), a small exhibition of photographs was mounted at the Bonnyrigg Public Library. Perhaps you may have visited this exhibition, if you lived locally, at the time.

Neil believes that some of the Hollywood film directors have the right idea, as they often start their films with an event or a sequence of events that are really the end of a story. Researching William McTaggart has been a bit like that for him because in order to find the beginning, he had to start at the end.

William McTaggart died of heart failure, at his home, Dean Park, Broomieknowe, Lasswade in the afternoon of Saturday 2nd April 1910 at the age of 75 years. He had not been well for much of that winter but his death had come suddenly. He had been a famous Scottish artist who had started as a portrait painter, had moved to landscape painting and latterly painted seascapes. He was also a member of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art, the R.S.A.

Following his death, his family collected all the obituary notices which appeared in the many newspapers and journals published throughout the country. Neil believes that they must have employed some press cutting agencies in order to obtain these obituaries. These press cuttings are preserved in a small leather case and from them, Neil has been able to get a clear picture of his life. Seven Scottish newspapers reported McTaggart’s death extensively in their editions during the week commencing Monday 4th April 1910. Some fourteen English regional and national newspapers also carried articles during that week.

His funeral was held on Tuesday 5th April at Echo Bank Cemetery in Newington, Edinburgh and was conducted by the Reverend Robert Louden of Cockpen United Free Church. This church is now Bonnyrigg Parish Church. A procession of some twenty mourning coaches left Bonnyrigg for the journey to Edinburgh. Many members of the RSA and a large number of friends attended the funeral. These included the President of the RSA, Sir James Guthrie and his wife, Mr Hippolyte Blanc RSA member and architect of many buildings in the Edinburgh area, including St Leonard’s Church, Lasswade, Sir Robert Hope, Chairman of the Society of Scottish Artists and many more dignitaries too numerous to mention.

Mr McTaggart’s coffin was of dull polished oak and bore the inscription, “William McTaggart died 2nd April 1910 in his 75th year”. Many beautiful wreaths were presented and it was reported that heavy rain fell all of the time during the interment.

William McTaggart had moved to Bonnyrigg in 1890 and spent the last twenty years of his life at his home, “Dean Park”, Broomieknowe, Lasswade somewhat isolated from the artistic world. He had the company of his growing family and visits from close friends. His large family house still exists in what is now Golf Course Road, (formerly part of Eldindean Road), Bonnyrigg. He had two studios built in the grounds of the house, one small and one a large where he painted and displayed many of his pictures. He also welcomed aspiring young artists who visited him there, encouraging them and giving them advice on their work and careers. There was a family tradition, which may indeed be true, that his move from Edinburgh to the countryside was partly as a retreat from a certain amount of hostile gossip following his second marriage to a woman so much younger than himself, twenty one years to be exact.


Marjorie Mc Taggart (second wife)
Marjorie Mc Taggart (second wife)

The following article from “The Scotsman” newspaper of Monday 4th April 1910 describes his life: –

” Born in Aros, in the parish of Campbeltown, Argyllshire, in 1835, Mr McTaggart, from any early age, gave marked indications of the career he was afterwards to follow. His father was a farmer and there was on the farm a deposit of clay, which the young boy, on his own initiative, began to model animate and inanimate objects. At twelve years of age he apprenticed to a druggist in Campbeltown, Dr Buchanan and while there he utilised his spare time in drawing chalk portraits and painting in oils. Without instruction of any kind, these art efforts were no doubt crude, but they showed clearly the bent of the future Academician. In 1852 Mr McTaggart left Campbeltown for Glasgow. He had a letter from Dr Buchanan to Mr Daniel MacNee, afterwards Sir Daniel MacNee, then one of the leading portrait painters of the West. McTaggart received from him some studies to copy and it was on his advice that the young artist came to Edinburgh to attend as a student, the Trustees’ Academy.”

Mc Taggart Family
Mc Taggart Family

“Mr Robert Scott-Lauder became Master and has often been stated, founded a school which left its mark not only on Scottish but English art. Seven years of hard work and enthusiastic study were put in by McTaggart at the Trustees’ Academy; he also studied anatomy for a few months at the Edinburgh University under Goodsir, and then, in company with the late Paul Chalmers, he visited, in 1857, the Manchester Exhibition to see its art treasures, and in 1860 he made his first excursion to Paris.”

“Mr McTaggart’s first works were portraits. It was a custom of some of his contemporaries to go over to Ireland during the school vacation to paint portraits, and McTaggart joined them. They made enough money to pay for the next session’s expenses; for art was not made so easy then for the student to prosecute as it is now-a-days. It was in the exhibition of the Royal Hibernian Society that Mr McTaggart first exhibited. It was not until 1855 that he first exhibited in Edinburgh, two ladies’ portraits in water-colours – a medium in which he was afterwards greatly to excel.

His first oil picture exhibited in the RSA exhibition in 1856 was called “The Little Fortune-Teller”. In 1859 he had a study from nature, “Going to Sea”, and a “Thorn in the Foot”, and in 1861 he exhibited his first landscape, “The Cornfield”. Before that time, however – in 1859 – his growing talents had been recognised by his election as an Associate of the Academy. In 1870 Mc McTaggart was elected to full membership, and on that occasion he deposited his diploma work, “Dora”, which has been regarded as one of the gems among the Scottish pictures in the National Gallery these many years. While the contemporaries in his earlier years found dramatic subjects for their brush in current literature – Scots novels and the like, Mr McTaggart chose his theme rather from the joys and sorrows of the common people as enshrined in old Scottish ballads, and occasionally in contemporary poetry. Among pictures of his class may be mentioned his “Enoch Arden” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” – the latter from Longfellow’s beautiful ballad. It showed in the dawn of the morning the “maiden fair lashed close to a drifting mast”, found by the amazed fisherman. This lovely picture, which has frequently been exhibited, suggests how sound and thorough and well informed was the early work of McTaggart, and on how solid a basis of technical knowledge the later “impressionist” work.

Mr McTaggart’s art as he advanced in years underwent a gradual and important evolution. In an old number of “The Art Journal”, a Scottish writer, in an article on Mr McTaggart, as “A Scottish Impressionist”, points out that “before the term had been imported from France and Monet and the rest had formulated their creed, Mr McTaggart had evolved for himself a method and style not unlike what they ultimately achieved, but exceeding it in suggestion, significance, and beauty.”

“Impressionism, of course in its best signification, is the presentment of the essential elements of a scene, a character, or an incident in its most expressive terms and in painting as he did probably from 1880 onwards along such lines Mr McTaggart’s work has this to recommend it, as compared with some of the efforts of the French impressionists, that it was always sincere and pictorially beautiful.

In Mr McTaggart’s later pictures details became of lesser importance than the general effect. It was the emotional personal impression of nature and the life around him that he painted.”

Mr McTaggart was able to give expression to “the thoughts that arose in him” in a way which for years has commanded the admiration of all lovers of art. This quality in Mr McTaggart’s art has been specially marked in his pictures of the sea. He worked a great deal at Machrihanish, with the great waters of the Atlantic stretched out before him, and a few have painted with so much subtle charm the heaving waters of the ocean under sunlight, or depicted with more sparkle and beauty the sunshine upon rocky or sandy shore, with children – sometimes as mere notes of colour – effectively introduced into the picture. Mr McTaggart has also realised in more than one picture – notably “Machrinhanish Bay” and “The Atlantic Surf” – the immensity, impressiveness, and “loneliness” of the sea. He also concerned himself with fisher life, and not a few of his best pictures depicted scenes associated with the daily calling of the toiler on the deep – the boat going out or coming into the harbour, in pleasant or stormy weather – such as “Good Luck – Fishing Boats Going Out” (1885), “Bound for the Fishing Ground” (1890), or “Dawn”.

Mr McTaggart also loved to paint the fisher children fishing in calm waters from a boat, lying on the bents or scrambling among the rocks, and while not infrequently, as has been, Mr McTaggart’s methods in his early and later days were wide as the Poles. His “Wreck of the Hesperus” has a certain pre-Raphaelite exactness and “tightness” which is far removed from his free, exuberant handling of paint in some of his seaside or county pictures, with towsy, flaxen-haired children introduced into them. Latterly Mr McTaggart did not paint many portraits, but among them one can recall with pleasure “The Belle”- a portrait of a little girl, one of his own daughters, attired in red and set against a background of ruddy brown, which in colour and style and graceful pose is worthy to take rank among the masterpieces of English and Scottish portraiture.”

“A vigorous and telling portrait of himself in his early days from his own brush is in the present exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy, as also one of the most charming of all his studies of fisher children in a lovely landscape.

Mr McTaggart was in every sense of the word a great artist. He was equally at home in both mediums – oils and water colours. In the later he did much beautiful work. He was a colourist of outstanding mark. His colour was fresh, and clear, and sparkling, with much of that fluency which characterise some of the best eighteenth century French masters. He was keenly sensitive to the vibrations of light and sunshine, and to the subtle influence of atmosphere, and in his pictures such sensations were charmingly visualised. Life and vitality and movement were ever present in his pictures.

As a man, Mr McTaggart was warm-hearted, quiet and unobtrusive. It is a curious fact that his pictures have seldom been seen in the great exhibitions of the world. Occasionally he did exhibit in the Royal Academy. This has been largely due to his dislike of notoriety and advertisement. “I dwell among mine own people” might have been his motto; but at home as a man and an artist no one was held in higher respect by his fellow-artists of the East and West alike, and by his circle of friends. His life has been singularly uneventful from the point of view of the biographer. Once when fishing in a small boat off Campbeltown he was run down by a steamer, and most miraculously escaped drowning.

His life was entirely devoted to his art. For many years he resided in Edinburgh with his studio in Charlotte Square; latterly he took up his residence at Broomieknowe, where he lived in a simple and retired manner, set around with conditions that ministered to his artist-nature. For young artists, whom he welcomed to his studio, he always had a word of encouragement.

He was one of the vice-presidents of the Society of Scottish Artists, and took a great interest in his career, and it was in its exhibitions that latterly most of his pictures were exhibited. He was also a vice-president of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters and Water-Colours.”