Biography of John MacWhirter (Victorian painter)
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
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
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, 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:
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.
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 (1833–1882), 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
Source: The Times Monday January 30th 1911
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 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.
Last updated 8th May 2017