William McTaggart. Part 1. The son of a Scottish crofter.

William McTaggart

My featured artist today, William McTaggart, was born in the rural hamlet of Aros, in the parish of Campbeltown, a Scottish town on the Kintyre Peninsula, on October 25th, 1835.  He was born into a family of crofters. He was one of nine children of Dugald and Barbara Brodie McTaggart (née Brolachan).  His father was a farm labourer and it was said that young William would fashion models from the clay which was prevalent in the ground around the farm.  In 1847 his parents arranged for him to become an apprentice to Doctor Buchanan, an apothecary in Campbeltown.  During his apprenticeship he would wile away his spare time sketching and painting, often they would be portraits of the shop’s customers.  Doctor Buchanan must have been impressed by his hard work and his love of art as in 1852, he arranged for William to go to Glasgow and gave him a letter of introduction to the established Scottish portrait artist Daniel MacNee. 

A Life Study of a Seated Male Model by William McTaggart (c.1850’s)

MacNee was also impressed by William McTaggart and began to give him some lessons in artistic techniques. He advised the young man to go to Edinburgh and seek a formal art education.  William took the advice, much to the consternation of his father, and enrolled as a student at the Trustees’ Academy, an establishment which dated back to 1760 and which, in 1907 became the Edinburgh College of Art.  William McTaggart spent seven years at this Edinburgh art school and studied under Robert Scott Lauder, the Scottish Historical painter. It was just what young McTaggart needed.  Here he had found a sense of enthusiasm towards art rather than a cynicism towards the subject which he had encountered at home.  No longer where his artistic aspirations looked upon as being foolish.  He was now not alone when it came to his love of art and had the added advantage of having a skilled tutor to guide him.  This change of environment acted as a stimulus for his enthusiastic nature.  His success at the Academy was down to his artistic talent and his strength of character.

Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857

At the Trustees Academy he won various awards including first prizes for both painting life models and painting antique casts. During his long stay he also attended some of the anatomy classes of John Goodsir at Edinburgh University.  In 1857, along with Paul Chalmers, a fellow Trustees’ Academy student who became a well-known portrait painter, William travelled down to Manchester to visit the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition which comprised over 16,000 works split into various categories, such as Pictures by Ancient Masters, Pictures by Modern Masters, British Portraits and Miniatures, Water Colour Drawings, Sketches and Original Drawings (Ancient), Engravings, Illustrations of Photography, Works of Oriental Art, Varied Objects of Oriental Art, and Sculpture.  It was a monumental exhibition remains and believed to be the largest art exhibition ever to be held in the with over 16,000 works on display.

Machrinhanish Bay by William McTaggart

In numerous biographies of artists who studied in Paris they often travelled to Brittany during their summer vacations but for aspiring Scottish artists studying in their homeland they would often spend their summer holidays across the Irish Sea in Ireland.  Like their French counterparts, whilst enjoying their summer vacation they would paint and try and sell their artwork before returning back home to the new term which had to be paid for.  William McTaggart’s initial painting were portraits and in 1855 he had his first painting, a watercolour portrait of two ladies, unveiled at an Edinburgh exhibition, although previously he had some of his works shown at the Royal Hibernian Society.

The Past and the Present, by William McTaggart (c.1860)

One of McTaggart’s early paintings, completed around 1860, was The Past and The Present depicting the cheery purity of young children and was probably influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters who favoured this type of subject.  McTaggart received the commission for this work from the Glaswegian art collector Robert Craig.  The painting depicts a group of five children of varying age playing innocently in the graveyard of the ruined Kilchousland church on a sunny afternoon.  They show no fear with regards the area which holds the remains of those who have passed away.  The depiction of their innocence negates any thoughts that this is a vanitas painting and yet the title would seem to highlight the transience of life.

Spring by William McTaggart, 1864

After a three-year engagement, William McTaggart married Mary Holmes in Glasgow on June 9th 1863.  They would go on to have six children.   He and his young wife went to Fairlie, a picturesque village which backed on to green pastoral hills which surrounded beautiful wooded glens, on the Ayrshire coast a few miles from Largs. From Fairlie the couple went to London on a brief visit about the end of July, when Mrs. McTaggart met some of her husband’s early friends, and they visited the Royal Academy Exhibition.  However, for William McTaggart, London was not for him and the couple returned to live in Edinburgh.  Soon his family increased and during the following summers he would take his wife and children on family holidays by the sea on the East coast of Scotland, visiting places such as Carnoustie and Broughty Ferry, where he painted many of the local scenes and soon gathered a number of commissions from the local people

Through Wind and Rain by Wiliam McTaggart (1875)

In 1870, McTaggart and his family went on holiday to the small village of Kilkerran, a few miles south of Campbeltown, and close to his birthplace.  It was a working holiday as William loved to paint.  From that year on, William and his family would return to Kintyre visiting Machrihanish, Tarbert, Carradale or Southend. He was a prolific painter and his output was tremendous. His paintings were much sought after and commanded high prices. It is believed at that time he was probably the best open-air painter in Britain.

The Village, White House by William McTaggart (1875)

In 1875 McTaggart completed his painting The Village, Whitehouse.  It was exhibited in the London Royal Academy under the title Twas Autumn and Sunshine arose on the Way.   It was one of many McTaggart paintings which depicted the picturesque small village. It was a tiring journey for the artist to get to Whitehouse as he had to go to Campbeltown and then catch the Campbeltown-Tarbert coach and to achieve all this he had to leave his holiday home at 5.a.m.  It was the last time he exhibited at the Royal Academy as he reasoned that he preferred to be first in his own country rather than be second in any other.

Dora by William McTaggart (1870)

As a student at the Trustees’ Academy, William McTaggart was awarded several prizes.  He also began to exhibit his work at the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy and in 1870 applied to become a full Academician.   To achieve this, he had to pass an interview and submit a diploma piece.  McTaggart’s diploma piece was his 1869 painting entitled Dora.  The painting illustrates a scene from Tennyson’s 1835 poem of the same name.  Dora, the heroine of the poem, waits in the field for the old farmer to acknowledge his grandchild beneath a blaze of summer sunshine.    Dora’s ploy here is to take off the boy’s sun-hat and put a little chain of wildflowers around his head instead, to make him look appealing (although in the poem itself, she puts the flowers round his hat). The grandfather can be seen approaching in the distance. Fortunately, in the end, the child does bring his grandfather round.

The poem reads:

“…But when the morrow came, she rose and took

The child once more, and sat upon the mound;

And made a little wreath of all the flowers

That grew about, and tied it round his hat

To make him pleasing in her uncle’s eye…”

William McTaggart was made an Academician in 1870.  The painting is part of the Scottish National Gallery and is regarded as one of the gems among the Scottish pictures.

Summer Breezes by William McTaggart (1881)

Most of his early works featured figure painting with him concentrating on depictions of children.  A fine example of this early work was McTaggart’s 1881 painting entitled Summer Breezes.  The painting depicts the two daughters of Sir. Thomas McCall Anderson who was a noted and pioneering dermatologist at the Glasgow Western Infirmary and later Regius Professor of Medicine. The background for the picture was painted from sketches made by McTaggart at Machrihanish in August 1880.  His biographer John Craw summed up the painting in his 1917 book William McTaggart R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W., A Biography and an Appreciation.  He wrote:

“…Than the last there is, indeed, nothing more exquisite in the fascinating kind of child portraiture he had made peculiarly his own. Here the two little daughters of Sir T. McCall Anderson, playing barefoot upon the sunlit shore, are grouped beside a great rock. One child, dressed in pale blue and pink, leans against the tawny and golden ridge upon which her smaller white-pinafored sister is perched, and their curly heads come together as they look with delight and wonder at a shell held by the other girl. Beside them, but neglected for the new-found treasure, a rough-haired terrier turns his attention seawards, where not far off a cobble at the salmon nets bobs buoyantly upon the waves, which heave divinely blue and free beneath a brilliant summer sky. Delightful as story, the pictorial treatment is no less charming. The design is happy and pervaded by a rare sense of beauty, the handling and drawing easy, graceful, suggestive, the colour lovely on its high-pitched but full harmony, the whole effect remarkable not only for vividness of lighting but for silvery clearness of tone…”

………………to be continued.


The Scottish Colourists, Part 3 – John Duncan Fergusson

Self-portrait by J.D.Fergusson (1902)
Self-portrait by J.D.Fergusson (1902)

Today I am looking at the third member of the Scottish Colourist group and possibly the most well-known, John Duncan Fergusson, who was born in March 1874 in Leith, a town which is often known as the port of Edinburgh.  He was the eldest of four children of John Fergusson, a spirit merchant and Christina, his mother.  He attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh and Blair Lodge School in Linlithgow.  Following this, in 1892, Fergusson attended the Edinburgh University Medical School to study medicine with the intention of becoming a naval surgeon.  However his lack of application to his studies resulted in him leaving after just two years, at which time, he decided on a complete volte-face and decided to study art at the city’s Trustees Academy School of Art.  Once again, Fergusson did not last long studying at this academy for he left stating that he found it too difficult to reconcile  what he considered to be, their old fashioned and inflexible teaching methods and their rigid curriculum which had been set in stone.   He left the art school and decided to set himself up in his own studio in Picardy Place, Edinburgh and simply teach himself how to paint.

Fergusson knew of the work of the Glasgow Boys and decided to do as they had done, go and study art in Paris which was, at the time, looked upon as the art capital of the world.  In 1895, aged twenty, he enrolled in the life-classes at Académie Colarossi and revelled in the lifestyle of his fellow artists and the whole Paris café society scene.   Fergusson enthusiastically adopted the lifestyle of a Bohemian artist, mixing with the likes of Picasso and Matisse and he could often be seen frequenting the legendary cafés of the time, such as, Le Pre-Catalan Restaurant, the Cage Harcourt and the La Closerie des Lilas and it was in these places, surrounded by his artist acquaintances that he drew so much of his inspiration.   He easily settled into this unrestrictive café society of the Left Bank.  He was surrounded by the work of the Impressionists and would visit the public and private galleries such as Salle Caillebotte at the Musée du Luxembourg, where their works were on display.   Fergusson loved the French capital and for the next ten years spent his summers in Paris and the rest of the time in Edinburgh, where he had established a close productive working relationship with fellow Scottish Colourist, Samuel Peploe.   In 1897 Fergusson exhibited some of his work at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and the following year, spent time in central France, painting at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, a small commune seventy kilometres south of Paris.   This River Loing setting often featured in the works of Alfred Sisley.  In 1899 Fergusson decided to go to Morocco and follow in the footsteps of Arthur Melville, the Scottish painter, who was famed for his Orientalist works, and who is now looked upon as being one of the most powerful influences in the contemporary art of his day.

Mademoiselle Dryden by J.D.Fergusson (1908)
Mademoiselle Dryden by J.D.Fergusson (1908)

It was during a painting trip at the seaside resort of Paris-Plage, in the summer of 1907 that Fergusson met two American ladies, Anne Estelle Rice and Elizabeth Dryden.   Elizabeth Dryden was an American writer and critic who had been sent to Paris in 1905 by her employer, the Philadelphia department store magnate, Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, to write fashion reviews for his Philadelphia department store trade magazine.   These reviews would then be illustrated by her friend Anne Estelle Rice, who was a sculptor and artist and who had worked as an illustrator on a number of magazines.   Both women featured in a number of paintings by Fergusson and he became great friends with them and Anne Estelle Rice later became Fergusson’s mistress.  In his 1908 painting of Elizabeth Dryden entitled Mademoiselle Dryden, Fergusson has depicted her clad not in the latest fashion but wearing a simple red scarf to keep out the chill with a painter’s smock worn loosely around her shoulders.

Rhythm by J.D. Fergusson (1911)
Rhythm by J.D. Fergusson (1911)

After his fully clothed portraits of Rice and Dryden it is quipped that from then on all his sitters had to remove their clothes and be in a state of undress!  In 1910, the English writer and critic, John Middleton Murray visited Fergusson’s Edinburgh studio.  He was about to launch a new literary, arts and critical review magazine.

Rhythm magazine cover
Rhythm magazine cover

Murray wanted to name the magazine after one of Fergusson’s paintings and have a drawing of it on the front cover.   Fergusson’s painting of a female nude was entitled Rhythm and that became the magazine’s title.  The cover of the magazine was elephant grey with Fergusson’s strong image of a naked woman sitting under a tree with an apple in her hand printed on it in black ink.  Fergusson became its art editor and through his many contacts in the art world was able to persuade artists such as Derrain, Picasso, and Delauny to provide illustrations for the magazine.  Anne Estelle Rice was also a regular contributor to the periodical.

Fergusson loved life in France and all the opportunities it afforded him to paint.  In the summers Fergusson would go on holiday and would often meet up with Peploe and his family in Brittany or Cassis in the south of France and for a short time Fergusson lived at Cap d’Antibes.

On his return to Paris he accepted the position as teacher at the Académie de la Palette and set up his studio in Montparnasse.  Fergusson was very happy with life at this time.  His long term partner Margaret Morris, whom he met in 1913, quoted Fergusson’s words describing his satisfaction with his Montparnasse studio and life in general in her 1974 book,  The Art of J.D.Fergusson:

“… [it was] comfortable, modern and healthy.   My concierge most sympathetic.  Life was as it should be and I was very happy.  The Dome, so to speak, round the corner; L’Avenue quite near; the Concert Rouge not far away – I was very much interested in music; the Luxembourg Gardens to sketch in; Colarossi’s class if I wanted to work from the model.  In short everything a young painter could want…”

Fergusson had met the dancer, choreographer, Margaret Morris in 1913.   She is now recognised for her pioneering work in modern dance.  She ran a dance school in London and that year had taken her dance troupe to Paris to dance at the Marigny Theatre on the Champs Elysees.  Fergusson and Morris later married and he became Art Director of all her MMM (Margaret Morris Movement) schools.  Fergusson and Morris were to remain together for almost fifty years.  The two built up a collection of friends from the literary greats of the time such as the novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the American ex-pat poet, Ezra Pound and the English writer and painter Wyndham Lewis.  Fergusson now had two homes and two distinct lives.  He had his base in Paris and the painting trips to the south of the country and he had the chance to stay with friends back in Britain, whether it was Samuel Peploe and his family in Edinburgh or his new friend Margaret Morris in London.

Christmas Time in the South of France by J.D.Fergusson (1922)
Christmas Time in the South of France by J.D.Fergusson (1922)

With the outbreak of the First World War he returned to Britain and, for the next four years, had to suffer the financial hardship brought about by the lack of sales of his work during the period of conflict.  After the war, he set up his own studio in London and this remained his base for the next ten years.  He exhibited his work on a regular basis and in 1928 he had four major exhibitions: in Chicago, London, Glasgow and New York.  In 1929, he along with Margaret Morris, returned to his beloved France and he set up his studio near the Parc de Montsouris, in Paris,  but always in the summers they made the trek south to live at Cap d’Antibes.  In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Fergusson and Morris return to Britain and set up home in Glasgow and it was here that Fergusson spent the last years of his life.

Throughout his life Fergusson had rebelled against formal academic art and he now found himself a slightly beleaguered figure, who was neither a part of the academic fold nor was he welcomed by the Royal Scottish Academy.   Fergusson and his wife, Margaret Morris were leading lights in the Glasgow artistic scene and Fergusson did have his followers as many much younger artists were drawn to him and his art.  In 1940, he decided to form the New Art Club, and out of this emerged the New Scottish Group of painters of which he was the first president.

John Duncan Fergusson died in Glasgow in 1961, aged 87.   Throughout his life, whether he lived and worked in Paris, Antibes, London or Glasgow, his art was infused by his rebellious and independent nature.  He always maintained his belief in freedom of expression and his fervent commitment to a modern, non-academic art world.  He was a lover of colour which was summed up by a quote from him, recorded in William MacLellan’s 1943 book entitled J. D. Fergusson, Modem Scottish Painting.  Fergusson was quoted as saying:

“…Everyone in Scotland should refuse to have anything to do with black or dirty and dingy colours, and insist on clean colours in everything.   I remember when I was young any colour was considered a sign of vulgarity. Greys and blacks were the only colours for people of taste and refinement. Good pictures had to be black, grey, brown or drab. Well! let’s forget it, and insist on things in Scotland being of colour that makes for and associates itself with light, hopefulness, health and happiness…”

The Scottish Colourists – Part 1, S.J.Peploe

Self-portrait by S.J.Peploe (c.1900)
Self-portrait by S.J.Peploe (c.1900)

It has often been the case that artists have been compartmentalised into groups which is then given an elaborate name.  The name is, more often or not, one which has not been made up by them but has come from an external source.  We know that Monet, Renoir, Degas and Sisley, to name just a few, did not sit around a French café table and come up with the name Impressionists for their group.  In fact the name Impressionists came from Louis Leroy, the art critic, journalist and some time contributor to the illustrated Parisian newspaper, Le Charivari.   In 1874, he had gone along to an exhibition of works by a group of artists which was being held at the photographer Nadar’s studio in the French capital.  The group of painters called themselves the Société anonyme des peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs, (The Anonymous society of painters, sculptors and engravers).  One of the paintings being exhibited was Claude Monet’s 1872 work entitled Impression: Soleil levant (Impression: Sunrise).  The title of Leroy’s review, in the April 27th edition of le Charivari, Exhibition of Impressionists, was taken directly from the title of Monet’s work.  Leroy’s review took the form of a fictional dialogue between two people who were viewing the exhibits with a measure of cynicism and disbelief at what they saw.     Commenting on Monet’s work one said:

 “…Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship!   A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape…”

Another example of this naming of a group of artists by somebody from outside the circle was that of the Fauves   The Fauves were a small group of artists who in the early 1900’s burst onto the French art scene with their wild, vibrant style that shocked their critics.  The name of the group was not thought up by the artists of the group such as Matisse, Derrain or Vlaminck but the term came from the influential but acerbic French art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, who first gave the group of painters the name les Fauves (the wild beasts).  The name came from a comment he made when he went to see the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibition.  Their paintings were on display in the same room as a classical sculpture by Donatello.  Vauxcelles decried their offerings in comparison to the classical sculpture by saying that the sculpture was Donatello parmi les fauves (Donatello amongst wild beasts).

 In my next couple of blogs I am going to look at the works of four Scottish painters who were influenced by the French Impressionists and Fauvists and who exhibited their works in the early part of the twentieth century. It was not until almost twenty years later, in 1948, that the four painters were grouped together under the name “The Scottish Colourists” by the director of the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow, Dr. Tom Honeyman, by which time three of the four painters were dead.  The four artists, often referred to by just the initials of their Christian names and their surnames, were Francis Campbell Boileau (F.C.B.) Cadell, Samuel John (S.J.) Peploe, John Duncan (J.D.) Fergusson and George Leslie (G.L.) Hunter.  This group of painters took up the mantle of Scottish art previously held by the group of Scottish painters, known as the Glasgow Boys, in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

S.J. Peploe, the eldest of the four, was born in Edinburgh in 1871.  He was the son of Robert Luff Peploe, an assistant secretary of the Commercial Bank of Scotland and his second wife, Anne.  He was educated at the Collegiate School in Edinburgh.  He was undecided as to what future path he should take and after finishing at school.  At one time he thought a military career was the career he wanted.  Then he considered a career in the church and ended up with a position as an apprentice in the Edinburgh legal firm of Scott & Glover.  He was unhappy in that work and decided to become an artist and in 1891 enrols at the Edinburgh School of Art.  Three years later Peploe heads for Paris to broaden his artistic education, where he lodges with another Scottish artist who was studying in Paris, the Aberdeen–born painter, Robert Brough who had been a fellow student with Peploe in Edinburgh.  In 1894 Peploe begins his studies at L’Académie Julian under the French Academic painter, William Bouguereau and at L’Académie Colarossi.  In 1895 Peploe visited Holland and is fascinated by the works of Frans Hals and brought back a number of reproductions of the Dutch artist’s works which he puts on the walls of his lodgings.

The Green Blouse by Samuel Peploe (c. 1904)
The Green Blouse by Samuel Peploe (c. 1904)

One of Peploe’s works which shows the influence of Frans Hals was a painting Peploe completed around 1904 entitled The Green Blouse.  The sitter for this portrait was Jeannie Blyth, a gypsy flower seller.  Peploe had used this teenager on a number of occasions.  It is thought that her dark colouring and total “at ease” attitude, as a sitter, made her the perfect model.

In 1895 Peploe returns to Scotland and takes up lodgings there and acquires a studio in Edinburgh.  He enrols in the Royal Scottish Academy life classes and went on to be awarded the Maclaine Watters medal for winning the RSA Art Prize.   The following year he exhibits work at both the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh and the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts.  Besides these two great artistic establishments there were other chances for up-and-coming new artists to exhibit their works.  One such place was the private gallery of the Edinburgh fine art dealers, Aitken Dott & Son who afforded Peploe his first solo exhibition in 1903.  Later, the other three Scottish Colourists would have solo exhibitions at this establishment.   In the summer of 1905 Peploe and fellow Scottish Colourist, Fergusson travel to Brittany on a painting trip and carry on their artistic tour taking in the sights of Dieppe, Paris and Paris-Plage.

The Lobster by S.J.Peploe (c.1903)
The Lobster by S.J.Peploe (c.1903)

It was around this time that Peploe started to paint still-lifes.  Peploe spent large amount time in the preparation for his still-life works even though the subject matter itself was not complicated.  His brother in law Frederick Porter wrote about Peploe’s obsession with his detailed preliminaries before starting painting and his struggle for perfection.  He wrote:

“… All his still lifes were carefully arranged and considered before he put them on canvas.  When this was done – it often took several days to accomplish – he seemed to have absorbed everything necessary for transmitting them to canvas.   The result was a canvas covered without any apparent effort.   If a certain touch was wrong it was soon obliterated by the palette knife.  The whole canvas had to be finished in one painting so as to preserve complete continuity.  If, in his judgement, it was not right then the whole painting was scrapped and painted again…”

The Lobster was one of Peploe’s still life paintings which he completed around 1903 and in this work there is a sense of drama in the way he has contrasted the strongly coloured objects against a dark background.  Look at the unusual way Peploe has included his vertical signature in the right hand side of the painting.  In some ways it looks like a vertical column of Japanese script and the colour scheme used, red, yellow and black as well as the sheen of the work affords it an effect which is very like the Japanese lacquer-work.  A few blogs ago, I talked about how all things Japanese had become very popular in the late nineteenth century in Europe.  This “craze” known as Japonisme was also becoming popular in Britain, and due to the Japonisme works of Whistler, it was influencing many artists including painters from Scotland, such as the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists.

In 1910 Peploe married Margaret Makay and the couple moved to Paris.  His son Willy was born that year.  He remained in France and carries on with his painting.  In June 1912 Peploe moves his family from Paris and takes up residence in Edinburgh and in 1914 his second son, Denis is born.   In 1917 after a number of solo exhibitions he is elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy and ten years later is elected as a member of the Royal Scottish Academy.  In 1928 he has an exhibition in New York at the Kraushaar Galleries.  In 1933, as well as continuing with his own painting, he taught the advanced life-class students at Edinburgh College.

 Samuel John (S.J.) Peploe died in October 1935, aged 64.

In my next blog I will look at the life of Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, another of the Scottish Colourists.