The Emigrants, by William McTaggart. Oil on canvas. 1883-89. 946 x 1410 mm. Tate Britain, London, released under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence. Reference no. NO4610.

McTaggart's biographer James Lewis Caw tells us that the artist was developing here an idea found in several earlier pictures; and that the composition originally (in 1883) was simply a "lovely vision of bright sky and clear blue sea seen from a foreground of rocky knowes," although he no doubt already had in mind "the completion which now took place through the introduction of crofters embarking for America" (126). Despite having been added in later, the watchers on the lonely shore are almost lost in the landscape, like so much flotsam, and those setting off in their small rowing boats, one of which is already at sea, are hardly more distinct. The emigrant ship itself seems tiny in the wide sea. The whole enterprise is wrenching, uncertain, perilous. David Scruton notes that strips of canvas were added, apparently to give space for additions. For example, he says, "the boat to the right of the headland would have been very cramped against the edge of the picture without the addition of extra canvas" (210). It seems, then, that McTaggart was particularly keen to evoke the scale of nature in which this human drama takes place.

But even this was not his final attempt at the subject, for McTaggart had long been haunted by the subject of emigration, as friends and family members left for America and Canada in the hope of brighter future: "a Celt himself, he had felt imaginatively all the bitterness of parting with loved ones, and of separation from the dim shielings and the misty islands of the Hebrides" (169). He was bound to make an epic painting of it and this was begun in 1891. In some ways the later one, The Emigrants — America, would be similar to the earlier one, but it would be darker: "The one is a beautiful lyric, touched with gentle pathos; the other a romantic epic of exile and adventure, sweetened with human smiles and tears" (171). Yet another would follow, The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship (1895), in which regret and sadness are again, and still more powerfully, mingled with hope. Frances Fowle points out that there were "replicas and variants" of all these.

What appeals here, in the 1883-89 one, is not only the highly emotional subject, but the artist's skills. Fowle finds his "broad handling, his use of the palette knife and the sense of the approaching storm ... much closer to Constable than to the work of Monet," pointing out that he evokes a sense of motion by copying "Constable's method of applying flickering white highlights to all parts of the canvas. Like Constable, he varies his brushstrokes, in order to capture the different textures of sky, sea and land. He also uses a buff priming, which appears patchily in the darker areas of the sky." This is McTaggart in his maturity. — Jacqueline Banerjee.


Caw, James Lewis. William McTaggart, R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W.; a biography and an appreciation. Glasgow, J. Maclehose and Sons, 1917. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 1 November 2016.

Fowle, Frances. "William McTaggart — The Emigrants. Tate. Web. 1 November 2016.

Scruton, David. William McTaggart: Landscape, Meaning and Technique. Doctoral Thesis for the University of St. Andrews, Scotland 1991. Available via the University's Repository. Web. 1 November 2016.

Created 1 November 2016