A Message from the Sea, by William McTaggart. Oil on canvas. 1883. 115 cm (45.28 in.) x 155.5 cm (61.22 in.). The painting is in the collection of the McManus: Dundee's Art Gallery and Museum, Scotland, and depicts Bay Voyach, Machrihanish, a village in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland. This faces the Atlantic on the Mull of Kintyre, and was a place where McTaggart loved to paint.

McTaggart painting in Machrihanish, from a snapshot taken in 1898 (Caw, facing p. 196). Note that the easel has had to be weighted down.

In this work, we see, in James Lewis Caw's words, "the ocean bursting white on the rocky islet to the right and rolling in a succession of glorious breakers towards the shining sandy shore, where three fisher children have just picked up the bottle which gives the picture its title." Caw continues:

The hurrying foam and flying spray of these nodding and crashing waves flashes in the sunshine, and seems the brighter in contrast with the deep liquid blues and purples and greens of the curving sides, which hang still unbroken though curling to their fall. Against this wonderful setting of swift-moving sea and changing light and colour, the children, wholly unconscious of its beauty and quite unaware that anyone is looking at them, are absorbed in what they have found, and, while this contrast enriches the subjective interest, simultaneously their sun-bright faces and weathered garments, lighted up here and there by a touch of orange or red, complete an exceedingly rich and full colour scheme. [85]

The painting in its frame (not quite showing the top of the frame).

McTaggart was well aware of, and liked, the work of the English artist James Clarke Hook, and this painting is reminiscent of Hook's earlier Word from the Missing (1877), with both paintings showing raggedly dressed children playing on the shore. As David Scruton notes, "Although McTaggart may have used his children as models, his depiction of childhood is firmly based within a lower social class" (137).

Colour photographs and text by Jacqueline Banerjee, by kind permission of the McManus Dundee's Art Gallery and Museum. You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the McManus and the photographer, or source, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them.


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.

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