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Biography of John MacWhirter (Victorian painter)

John MacWhirter circa 1890Contents

Overview

Family

Transcription of obituary

Overview

While researching the 'McCulloch Collection of Modern Art', which featured at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition in 1909, we came across the name of Scottish painter John MacWhirter (1837 - 1911). Photo above, source Wikimedia.

McCulloch purchased three of his large paintings:

A Highland Bay

numbered 3 in the exhibition catalogue, in which it was described:

View from a rocky and wooded height across the bay, with mountains beyond; in the middle distance is a tower at the end of a spit of land, other buildings on the left; numerous fishing vessels. Signed 'MacW'. Canvas 40 x  51 in.

A Highland Bay 1891

A Highland Bay

from Academy Notes 1891, courtesy of LR McCallum

(Academy Notes is a journal, like the 'Art Journal' but coming out after the Royal Exhibition each year with either engravings or sketches of what they consider the best of the exhibition).

The Sleep That is Among the Lonely Hills

numbered 73 in the exhibition catalogue, in which it was described:

View looking down a glen, with high rocks on the right, crowned by Scotch firs; high mountains in the  distance; evening sky. Signed 'MacW'. Canvas 47 x 71 in.

The title above was possibly taken from William Wordsworth's poem 'Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle' written in 1888.

The Sleep that is among the Lonely Hills

The Sleep that is among the lonely Hills

from the Art Journal 1896, courtesy of LR McCallum

MacWhirter's obituary in an Australian newspaper describes this as one of his best pictures. That is hard to imagine from this black and white print, but perhaps the rich colours of sunset add another dimension. Do you have a colour photo of the original painting?

A Spate: Glen Affaric

numbered 215 in the exhibition catalogue, in which it was described:

The river, in spate, and flowing between steep and rugged banks, occupies the centre of the picture; grey and stormy sky. Signed 'MacW'. Canvas 47 x 74 in.

A spate, Glen Affaric

A Spate, Glenn Affaric

from Art Journal 1903, courtesy of LR McCallum

So who was MacWhirter? His entry in the Dictionary of Victorian painters summarises him thus:

Scottish landscape painter. Born in Edinburgh. Elected ARSA 1867, but left Edinburgh soon after to settle in London. Exhibited at RA 1865 - 1904, New Watercolour Society, Grosvenor Gallery and elsewhere. Elected ARA 1879, RA 1894. MacWhirter's preference was for peaceful and poetic landscapes. At first he attempted Pre-Raphaelite detail, but later abandoned this for a broader style. Travelled widely in Europe and America, and in the Alps, France and Italy.

You will find him listed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and this account simply adds a little more information about his family and contemporaries.

Family

John was the son of George MacWhirter or McWhirter and his second wife Agnes Laing. George was a bleached paper maker who took over Mossy Mill at Colington a suburb of Edinburgh in 1838; the family are also said to have had bleachfields at their other mill at Inglis Green, Slateford.

John's mother Agnes Laing had military connections; she was the sister of soldier Major Alexander Gordon Laing, latterly a North African explorer, who is thought to have been killed by Arab bandits near Timbuktu in 1826. John's maternal grandmother was the sister of General Gabriel Gordon (1762 - 1855) who had been named after his maternal uncle General Gabriel Christie. Gabriel Gordon spent 20 years in the West Indies and Canada, returning to Jamaica in 1803; soon after, he was appointed to command the British settlement at the Bay of Honduras, being ultimately Deputy Quartermaster General at that station. He took part in the capture of Martinique and Guadalope in 1809.  A striking portrait of Gabriel Gordon was painted by Scottish artist Sir John Watson, who for some reason appended Gordon to his surname in 1826.

John's father, George, died in Scotland about 1850, aged 64 years, when John was only 13, and perhaps it was the family's association with paper production that stimulated John's interest in art. John's sister, Agnes MacWhirter (18331882), was a still-life painter of considerable repute; her pictures were generally small and minutely painted.

We think John's younger brother, George, became a merchant seaman, and his youngest brother, Alexander Gabriel MacWhirter, became a soldier in the Second Dragoon Guards. Neither married and so it seems to have fallen to John to become the anchor of the family in later life.

In 1871 John MacWhirter, aged 32 years, was living at Lichfield Villas, Marylebone. Also in the household were his mother Agnes; sisters Hugenia and Agnes; an 'aged aunt' Barbara Laing; and a servant. It would seem there were plenty of women to run his household, allowing him to concentrate on his work.

In 1872 John MacWhirter married Katherine Cowan Menzies, the daughter of Allan Menzies (1804 - 1856), a lawyer who had latterly been Professor of Conveyancing at Edinburgh University.

The 1881 census records the couples' children being looked after by John's sisters. By 1891 the family had settled at 1 Abbey Road, St Johns Wood an area popular with artists; John now has 3 servants and visiting the household was a niece, Pauline Douglas, who was born in Berlin.

Living at Abbey Road in 1901 were John; his wife Katherine; daughter Helen; son Alan; sister Hugenia; son in law, the painter Charles Henry Sims; daughter Agnes; grandson John; and four housemaids.

The 1911 census records that John MacWhirter's house at Abbey Road had 15 principal rooms. By then John had died and living there were his widow Katherine; her sister in law Hugenia; son Alan; daughter Helen; son in law, solicitor Sydney Malcolm Baird; grandson Michael aged 8 months; a parlourmaid, cook, housemaid and a nurse. One imagines, financially, John MacWhirter must have been doing quite well.

Number 3 Abbey Road next door to MacWhirter's home was purchased by a forerunner of EMI circa 1930 and became the Abbey Road Studios.

Children

John and Katherine MacWhirter had four children:

Agnes Helen (1873 - 1964); Helen Agnes (1875 - 1967); Ulric George (1878 - 1948); and Alan Gordon (1882 - 1939).

Their eldest daughter Agnes Helen MacWhirter married gifted painter Charles Henry Sims (1873 - 1928) and the couple had three children, John, Alan and Peter.

The art collector George McCulloch had three paintings by John MacWhirter's son-in-law Charles Sims ARA in his collection:

  • 186 The Kite, a girl in a white dress and straw hat gazing at a boy flying his kite, 27 x 35 in. Now in the National Museum of Wales.

  • 308 Drying day, 17 x 21 in

  • 309 Washing day, 16x 19 in

Sadly Charles Sims is reported to have become mentally ill in later life and committed suicide.

De Ruvigny's Roll of Honour records that tragically John MacWhirter's grandson, naval cadet John Sims, was killed in 1914. The transcription reads:

Sims, John, Naval Cadet, Royal Navy, HMS Bulwark, eldest son of Charles Sims of Lodsworth, Petworth, ARA, by his wife Agnes Helen, daughter of the late John MacWhirter RA; born Hammersmith, London, 17th October 1898; educated The Wells House, Malvern Wells; entered the Navy Sept 1911; appointed to HMS Bulwark 16th August 1914, and was lost when the ship was blown up off Sheerness 26th November 1914.

It is said the accident may have been caused by the storage of cordite too close to the boiler room.

Helen Agnes MacWhirter married solicitor Sydney Malcolm Baird.

The life of Ulric George MacWhirter is a mystery; we last found him in 1891 aged 13 years, living with his parents in London - but a man of that name and of similar age died in Staffordshire in 1948, which might possibly be him. We wondered if he could have joined the army or gone abroad?

Alan Gordon MacWhirter, the youngest, became a professional singer, performing in the UK, and abroad, under the name Alan MacWhirter. A New York newspaper described him as the 'Scotch Baritone'. In 1920 at Cardiff he married Doris Mary Cooke, the daughter of John Philip Cooke, who in 1901 had been  the proprietor of a Coffee House in Brighton.

Alan MacWhirter's name appeared in the Radio Times in relation to a concert which was broadcast on 7th January 1927; that suggests he may have been a member of the once famous band of violinist Corelli Windeatt (1868 - 1947).

An article in the Mercury newspaper said this about Corelli in relation to Weston Super Mare:

Nor must one forget the brilliant contribution to Grand Pier and Weston music generally over many years of Corelli Windeatt. He was a violinist of rare talent who studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Prosper Stanton (Court violinist to Queen Victoria). Although only in his teens, he won Royal Academy of Music medals and diplomas and achieved fame as a solo violinist. He was also engaged for concert tours with famous artistes. Corelli's father was a Weston music teacher and concert performer. Affectionately known as 'Old Boy Windeatt', he was rarely seen without his fiddle box. He taught at the Weston College and other schools and founded and conducted the Weston Orchestral Society. Sometimes at local concerts there were as many as seven members of his clever family in the orchestra. A breakdown in the health of his father brought Corelli back to Weston to carry on his teaching connections. He also had his own orchestra, which he conducted for seasons at both piers and at many events in the district, including the balls arranged by Squire Smyth Pigott at his Brockley manorial residence. Eventually Corelli returned to London and formed a dance band that became famous the country over and was in great demand for society balls and garden parties. It was featured at the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Albert Hall and at fashionable polo gatherings at Ranelagh.

 A painting of Alan MacWhirter by his brother in law Charles Sims is said to be held by the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.

Baritone, Alan Gordon MacWhirter died in 1939. His father, the painter John MacWhirter, had died in 1911 and a transcription of John's obituary appears below.

Transcription of obituary

Source: The Times Monday January 30th 1911

OBITUARY

Mr John MacWhirter RA

Mr John MacWhirter RA died at his house in Abbey Road, St John's Wood, on Saturday, of bronchitis, from which he had been suffering for about six weeks.

In spite of his illness he continued to work in his studio until a week ago because he was anxious to finish four pictures for this year's Academy.

John MacWhirter was the son of the late George MacWhirter, paper manufacturer, of Colington, Edinburgh and was born at Slateford, near Edinburgh on March 27th 1838.

He came of an old Ayrshire family, one of whom was numbered among the 'Ayrshire Martyrs'. He was 13 when his father died, an event which caused him to leave school at Peebles and to enter as an apprentice into the business of Oliver and Boyd, the booksellers and publishers. But already the love of art was strong in him, and after six months he broke his articles, determined to become a painter.

When he was 14 he exhibited his first work at the Royal Scottish Academy, and about the same time entered the Arts Schools, then under the direction of an excellent painter, Robert Scott Lauder RSA.

It was a good moment in the Edinburgh schools, and among MacWhirter's companions were a number of men who soon attained distinction William MacTaggart, Hugh Cameron, and three painters who were afterwards his close friends and colleagues in the Royal Academy, John Pettie, Peter Graham and WQ Orchardson. Under Lauder's training MacWhirter made rapid progress; his love of nature was keen and his industry great, so that each year's exhibition saw him steadily advancing.

From the years 1856 onwards he seldom exhibited fewer than five pictures, and in 1867, when he was 28, he was elected ARSA. His studies were made in the Highlands, where he spent a large part every year, and on the Continent, where he had travelled constantly since he was a boy of 16.

His first Academy picture, a 'Temple of Vesta' was shown in 1856, and from 1870 he exhibited in London generally two landscapes each year without a break. In 1879 he was elected ARA and in 1893 full Academician, in the company with Mr Henry Woods and the late Henry Moore.

Before and after that time his style and subjects varied little; the large majority of his pictures and drawings have been views of the Highlands, with blue, sunlit lakes, and commonly a group of Scotch firs or graceful birch trees in the foreground. Sometimes, however, he has given us Italian lake scenes or Swiss meadows starred with flowers, such as the well-known 'Alpine Meadow' or that 'June in the Austrian Tyrol' which was bought in 1892 out of the Chantrey Fund.

His Ideals and Methods

In 1900 Mr MacWhirter published a book 'Hints to Students on Landscape Painting in Water-Colour' and this is a useful commentary upon his own ideals and methods. He begins with advising the pupil 'always to carry a notebook', and this was his invariable rule. 'You cannot train your memory too soon. . . . Take rapid notes of all sort of things. . . . You should sit down for days (or weeks if you like) before a tree or a root of a tree, and get all the detail and beauty you can into your drawing. Paint also ferns, mosses, bits of stick, smooth and rough stones, rocks etc. Study flowers especially. . . . If you continue filling your note-books with studies such as I have indicated, as well as with studies of clouds, mountains etc you will be able with the knowledge thus acquired to paint a distinct impression of a scene which has passed away'.

This is excellent advice, and MacWhirter's own sketches prove that it was followed by himself. Indeed, though his finished pictures remained to the end popular with the many, artists and skilled amateurs came to admire them less than his sketches and studies.

They were much too composed; they tended to repeat a limited number of motives a little too obviously; and their colour was a little chalky and cold. MacWhirter knew that this was the opinion held about his works in 'modern' circles and being a good fighter would argue against modern heresies with force and with racy Dorian energy.

He was intensely Scotch, but the 'Glasgow School' of today did not command much of his sympathy. None the less, he was much liked and respected by his colleagues and by the art-world generally.

Mr MacWhirter married in 1872 the daughter of Professor Menzies, of Edinburgh. One of his daughters of whom Sir L Alma Tadema once painted a charming small portrait is married to Mr Charles Sims, on of the best of our younger painters.

The funeral will take place at the Golder's Green crematorium on Wednesday at 12 o'clock.

The National Probate Calendar records that painter John MacWhirter of 1 Abbey Road, St Johns Wood, Middlesex, died on 28th January 1911. His executors were Katherine MacWhirter, widow; Charles Edward Johnson, artist; and Sydney Malcolm Bird, solicitor, his son in law. He left effects of 29,983.

Landscape painter Charles Edward Johnson (1837 - 1913) was a contemporary of John MacWhirter; he had begun his career as an artist in Edinburgh moving to London in 1864. In 1891, when he was living in Hampstead, he was a neighbour of British painter and sculptor Sir James Dromgole Linton, and of the American painter and sculptor George Faulkner Weatherbee (1851 - 1920) who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. In later life Johnson conducted a school for landscape painting at Richmond; he died not long after John MacWhirter in 1913.

The Covenanters

The reference to John MacWhirter coming from an old Ayrshire family, one of whom was numbered among the 'Ayrshire Martyrs', probably relates to a religious dispute between Covenanters who believed there was no place for a hierarchical organisation within the Scottish church, such as bishops, and the English establishment; this went on for many years.

In 1679 a battle took place at Bothwell Bridge on the Clyde between a group of Covenanters and troops of Charles II. About 210 of the participants, who were declared traitors and sentenced to be banished to work as slaves on American plantations, were drowned when the Crown of London was shipwrecked off the Orkneys. One of those men was a John McWhirter, whose name appears on the Covenanter's Memorial at Maybole, south of Ayr.


If you can add to this account do please get in touch.


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References

  1. The Times Digital Archive
  2. Census of England and Wales
  3. National Probate Calendar
  4. Wikipedia
  5. Dictionary of Victorian Painters
  6. Oxford DNB
  7. McCallum, Lawrence, George McCulloch GLASGOW, BROKEN HILL & KENSINGTON, A life of Ships, Sheep, Silver and Art, ISBN 9780473310530, published 2015.
  8. Communication from LR McCallum, May 2017