McTaggart's Scottish Shorelines - Paintings from East and West

June 2011

Publication: The Times

Since the ill-advised decision to close The Crawford Arts Centre in 2006, those wishing to experience the visual arts in St Andrews have been presented with slim pickings – quite an irony given the current stellar status, by association, of the university’s art history department.
The current venue, although conservative, uncomfortably small and oddly old-fashioned nevertheless deserves praise for its current show which focuses on the major theme of the Victorian Scottish painter, William McTaggart – the sea.
Given that St Andrews is a coastal town from where one can also see one of McTaggart’s favourite painting spots – Carnoustie – the choice is appropriate.
McTaggart, who was born in Aros, Kintyre in 1835 and whose father was a labourer, trained at the Trustees Academy (which later became Edinburgh College of Art) returned frequently to his native patch to paint. From the capital he moved to Lasswade in Midlothian where he spent the last years of his life engaged in studies of the land and rural landscape around him.
Some might say that the sea was in the artist’s blood as he was inexorably drawn to it throughout his working life to paint its moods, light, patterns, forms and the history of those who lived – and died – by it.
This selection, drawn exclusively from the collection of Fife Council – certainly makes this fact plain and attempts, if somewhat weakly, to place McTaggart in a modern context by including a single work by the contemporary artist, Will Maclean, as well as poetry written in a workshop held by David Kinloch.  The poems demonstrate the participants’ response to McTaggart’s sometimes fey and ethereal studies which adorn the walls rather pompously in their ornate gilded frames. One wonders how the paintings might look if framed using modern techniques and more experimental lighting?
If McTaggart’s unconvincing rosy-cheeked figures which appear to dissolve into the landscape (a metaphor for the indivisible relationship between humanity and nature ?) leave you occasionally irritated and dissatisfied then this is more than compensated for by his skill in conveying not only a visual experience but also a quasi tactile and aural one. 
As a genre painter, however, McTaggart was no slouch as his 1858 work ‘Going to Sea’ – painted when the artist was just twenty-three – demonstrates. The narrative content is quite explicit – an old salt regales two youths with tales of awe while their companion, another boy, gazes inland, full of doubt.
Some of McTaggart’s most popular works are here, including a smaller version of ‘The Storm’, a composite picture with elements of narrative, seascape and landscape. But despite the human sadness encapsulated in several works concerning emigration which McTaggart painted decades after such events actually took place, one is left wondering if it is in fact those works without a human presence, such as ‘The Wave’ painted in 1881, where the artist reached the pinnacle of his career. The sense of gentle movement, solitude and beauty seems unsurpassed in most other works and goes some way to explaining the ill-founded belief of McTaggart’s association with Impressionism.