Sir William MacTaggart PPRSA, RA, LLD, FRSE, HonRHA, HonRSW, HonFRJAS,

  • Born : 1903
  • Died : 1981
  • Associate Elected : 17/03/1937
  • Academician Elected : 11/02/1948


  • Born : 1903
  • Died : 1981
  • Associate Elected : 17/03/1937
  • Academician Elected : 11/02/1948

RSA Obituary, transcribed from 1981 RSA Annual Report

P./P.R.S.A., R.A., L.L.D., F.R.S.E., Hon.R.H.A., Hon.R.S.W., Hon.F.R.J.A.S., Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur.

One of my earliest recollections of Willie MacTaggart goes back some 45 years to a party in his Loanhead home. It was snowing and a bitterly cold night, relieved for myself and my wife by the warmth of our welcome amongst his artist colleagues, most of whom we later came to count as lifelong friends. Amongst them were Harry Harvey Wood and his wife who had known Willie since Harry and he had been fellow students in the Painting School at the Edinburgh College of Art. At the time I knew little of Willie’s early upbringing, background or career and, in writing this appreciation I have relied heavily on Harvey Wood’s monograph, written at a far distant date for the University Press, which covers the artist’s early days and, in my view, is by far the most perceptive and balanced account of his life and achievements. For the rest I have attempted to portray the man I knew and admired rather than reconstruct a record of his career.

It may seem odd that after a friendship of nearly fifty years during which we were associated, first on the Council of the Society of Scottish Artists, when he was President and later as fellow members and office bearers in the Academy, I have found it strangely difficult to write about MacTaggart or to draw an authentic picture of his personality. In this I am not alone for Harvey Wood once confessed to me after writing his biography that, although they had known one another since their student days, he had never been able to uncover those hidden depths which MacTaggart guarded secretly and with care.

It may be fancy on my part but, it seems to me, that by heredity, by environment and by the early misfortune of indifferent health he was cast in an unusual mould. Because of illness during his boyhood he was forced to lead a sheltered life and was educated privately and debarred from most of the companionship, recreational activities and competition normal to school life. His grandfather was from Kintyre and had been a great painter, and his father was a successful engineer and inventor. Through them MacTaggart probably inherited his capacity for business affairs and much more, a slow burning poetic inspiration and all the essential dignity and simple’ courtesy of his Celtic forebears, qualities which linger still, to a surprising degree in the Celtic fringe of the far West of Scotland and which never deserted him, even in the dark days of his last years when he was overtaken by loss of memory and the senility of age.

From the early age of fifteen when he decided to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps it is apparent that in addition to the deprivation of normal schooling he lacked the advantage of a higher education at school or University level and spent much of his time painting in the South of France, a refugee from ill health in search of the sun. This pattern he continued to follow throughout life and it seems fairly clear that, just as the apparent misfortune of ill health turned his mind in the direction of painting, it also made him an inveterate traveller and developed in him an awareness and a wide ranging knowledge and sympathetic understanding of the works of his foreign contemporaries and the greatness of their predecessors.

It is almost certain, too, that it brought a realisation of his own country’s place in contemporary culture and instilled in him a faith in the genius of his people and an ambition to see his country emerge and take her place with honour as an equal amongst the nations of Europe.

By the time we met in the early ’30s, he had established himself as a leading figure amongst a highly talented group of young Edinburgh painters and was President of the Society of Scottish Artists. My impression was of a quiet, balanced, friendly and generous personality, very different from my idea of the traditional highly strung artist. He was slow of speech, deliberate in manner and conservatively dressed, apart from the excessively wide-brimmed black felt hat he affected.

At that time I was immersed in, and a disciple of, the New Architecture and an enthusiastic if not very perceptive follower of its exciting theories and principles. I soon found that he, too, was a rebel in his own field of painting and something of a crusader against what we both considered to be a deplorable absence of public taste, particularly in the mass production of furniture, fabrics and glass. He invited me to accompany him on a short tour of factories, where we argued the case for higher standards of design, citing Scandinavian examples. Always we met with the argument that the public was given the kind of design it wanted and was prepared to pay for and that, to attempt to force new and more enlightened standards, would simply invite economic disaster. So far as I know our foray had no effect, the only practical result being that Willie came home with a beautiful water jug blown to his ideas by an old Spaniard in a Perth factory, where he apparently produced miles of glass test-tubes.

This crusading characteristic never left him and later, when he was Secretary and subsequently President of the Academy and a member of the Festival Society Council, he put it to good effect by promoting and assisting the Arts Council to launch a great series of Painting Exhibitions, sponsored jointly by the Academy and hung on the walls of our galleries. The Braque Exhibition was followed by the Blau Reiter Group, the Henie-Onstad Collection, Delacroix, Modigliani, Soutine and Corot. Through them, Scottish artists and public were privileged to see and learn from the original works of nearly all the great masters of modern times. In a different way, when disastrous floods swept through Florence and threatened to destroy the precious heritage of Italian painting, MacTaggart reacted immediately with a public appeal in the Scottish press for financial help which was eventually merged with the highly successful National Appeal under the chairmanship of Lord Crawford.

Like most true innovative artists, despite his profound knowledge of painting, he was not a scholar. His ambitions and interests lay in the present rather than the past and, in view of his disrupted education, it is doubtful if he was equipped for intensive study or research, other than in so far as these could form a crutch to further his ambitions and progress as a painter. His handwriting, which was strangely laborious and slow, was rarely used except as a signature and one of my fondest memories dwells on these occasions when he appended his name to each new Member’s Diploma before it was presented to Her Majesty for the Royal signature. This performance seemed to demand the assistance of the whole Academy staff for about half an hour-clearing his desk, providing a suitable pen, ink and blotting paper, adjusting his chair and settling him at a comfortable angle-then several practice attempts on separate sheets of paper, before he made his final triumphant effort. This may seem rather a cruel caricature, but it is indicative of his approach to all our affairs. He never chaired an Academy meeting, no matter how unimportant, without careful preparation and rarely had to argue his recommendation or decision: a remarkable phenomenon when the peculiarities and independence of our Members are considered.
His Presidency was marked by the affection and esteem in which he was held by his fellow Academicians, and by the loyalty he, aroused in the permanent staff. He was an astute business man, with a complete knowledge of the Academy’s history and an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, who recognised the importance of building our financial stability and balancing that which prestige demanded against the financial strain imposed. It is significant that he left the Academy much stronger financially than he found it and a tribute to his leadership that during his term of office the assets of our General Fund were tripled and funds established within the Academy Trusts made very substantial advances. In other ways, too, his efforts to promote the Academy’s welfare were equally successful. The value of our collection of Calotypes was recognised as an important hidden asset available to meet future contingencies which might arise and threaten the Academy’s existence and when the question of ownership of the Laing Drawings was disputed by the National Galleries he handed them over on temporary loan on condition that the Academy’s legal right to them was recognised, thereby removing from the Academy the responsibility and expense of looking after this valuable collection while at the same time ensuring that it remained a permanent asset available to the Academy if necessary. Equally important was his successful struggle to resist claims by the National Galleries and Arts Council for a greater share of the Academy’s Exhibition space.

Like his predecessor in office, Sir William Hutchison, he realised that much of the strength of the Academy lay in its character as a National Institution and so far as he could he encouraged the introduction of new blood from all parts of Scotland. It was during his Presidency that our Annual Dinner for Members and their wives was inaugurated. I am not certain, although I strongly suspect, this may have been inspired by his wife, a remarkable woman in her own right, who was rewarded by a grateful country for her services on behalf of her own exiled Norwegian people during the War by the award of the St Olav Medal and was later created a Knight of St Olav (1st Class) by her King. These intimate dinners, to which only one Guest of Honour and Principal Speaker and his wife were invited, became a highlight of the Academy year and have done much to create and cement friendships between our Members and their families while, at the same time, providing an opportunity to increase our influence where required at a cost which the Academy can afford.

Sir William’s preoccupations in the interests of the Academy, together with the social and public commitments of office, were paralleled by his enjoyment of pageantry, by his delight in wearing the Academy robes, by his pleasure in taking part in public processions, in sporting the Presidential Medal at receptions and dinners and especially by his pride on those occasions when he had the privilege of escorting Royalty round the Academy. Yet it is a measure of the man that he remained simple and courteous and was completely lacking in affectation and arrogance.

My wife and I spent many happy evenings with the MacTaggarts in our houses gossiping and discussing things of mutual interest, but I was only once in his studio and can claim to know little of his life as a painter other than that which has been recorded elsewhere. Through his work, however, I followed his development over the years and whatever the judgement of posterity may be, I am in no doubt in my own mind that as a painter he holds a unique place amongst the greatest of his contemporaries.

But between the personality he revealed in his painting and particularly in the canvasses of his later years there is an inexplicable gulf which it seems impossible to reconcile with the assured, balanced and always courteous diplomat I knew, who in another place and in other times might have been a Prince of the Old Church. In these canvasses he seems to reveal a tempestuous, passionate, mysterious, sometimes tormented and even uncontrolled aspect of his nature which in all other ways remained hidden. If there is an explanation it may be that it is given only to a select few of the most highly gifted among us to tap the depths of the subconscious in sudden flashes of imaginative inspiration which defy the laborious logic of the conscious mind and that he possessed this faculty in generous measure.

The rest is history and for the record. Following his election as President of the Royal Scottish Academy he became an Honorary Royal Academician, an Honorary Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, an Honorary Member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water Colour and an Honorary Member of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. Later he was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy. In 1961 the University of Edinburgh conferred on him the degree of Honorary Doctor of Law and in 1962 he received his Knighthood. But perhaps the honour which meant most to him was to be made a Freeman of his native Burgh of Loanhead. His services to the Arts in Scotland and to the Academy were immense and were freely recognised by his fellow artists at home and abroad and sealed by his Knighthood and by the French Government when he was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1968 shortly before his retirement from the Presidency. Five years later in 1973 he was elected to full Membership of the Royal Academy.

His last years saw his gradual withdrawal from the world through the twilight of illness. He died on 9th January of this year and a short week later was followed into the darkness by his loyal and devoted wife, Fanny.