John McGhie, 1867-1952

McGhie was born near Lanark in 1867. He initially enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art. He attended in the years before Mackintosh’s magnificent new building was opened, in 1897; but he was at the School when it was hosting some of the most adventurous young artists and designers of the day, including, of course, Charles Rennie Mackintosh himself[1]. Perhaps of even more importance for McGhie were the Glasgow Boys - that group of artists who were profoundly influenced by the painterliness of the French Impressionists, the evocative brevity of James McNeill Whistler’s work and the direct, colourful, plein-air Realism of Jules Bastien-Lepage.

McGhie’s time in Glasgow was short. After a year, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy Schools. There, he was taught by the elderly J.E. Millais, whom McGhie particularly admired. Although Millais is now renowned mainly for his Pre-Raphaelite work of the 1850s – and his later output is often dismissed[2] – in fact, during the late 1880s and early 1890s, his fluently-applied brush was being employed to create portraits and landscapes of an elegiac beauty, sometimes touched with a hint of nostalgia and longing. Something of this inflects much of McGhie’s art, too.

Three years at the RA Schools were followed by time spent in what was certainly then regarded as the home of modern art, Paris. But McGhie did not join the radicals; instead, he studied for a year at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, under Bouguereau, an artist at the heart of the French Academy, who exhibited annually at the Paris Salon. That McGhie studied at the Ecole suggests his dedication to acquiring a considerable depth of traditional training in drawing, form and colour. True, many of McGhie's artistic peers in Paris might have shared the Impressionists' rejection of Bouguereau as no more than a slick technician, with a taste for alluring nudes. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that McGhie himself dismissed Bouguereau - and we should remind ourselves that the Academician had taught for many years not only at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but also at the much more avant-garde Académie Julian, where, since the 1860s, he is known to have offered encouragement to many young artists who were not of an academic bent. Moreover, when examining paintings by Bouguereau, there is a quality of contemplative melancholy about some of his later figures – a reflection on mortality? – which distinguishes them from the undeniably inane, porcelain beauties of his earlier career. Perhaps McGhie, attuned to the late works of Millais, found in Bouguereau a similar vein of poignancy?

In addition to this education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, McGhie certainly must have been aware of the Impressionists, whose 8th and last group exhibition had been held in 1886, and whose work was now attracting the notice of collectors - many of them American, but some of the earliest and most discriminating collectors, like James Duncan and William Burrell, being Scottish. Indeed, even the output of the Post-Impressionsists – including Van Gogh and Gauguin – was also beginning to be exhibited and to find buyers by the 1890s. McGhie could not have failed to have been enriched by his encounter with artists who paid such attention to the quality of their brush-mark, the boldness of their line and the expressiveness of their colour, as well as to the evocative and evanescent passage of light and time.

Paris, of course, was full of ambitious, young, artists at this period, and there must have been numerous encounters which enhanced McGhie’s experience. There is just one other whose work is worth singling out, however: Léon L’Hermitte was commanding great success at this time, admired both in academic and more radical circles. His rural, Realist work focused on the fast-disappearing world of the peasant. He dwelt on their often hard and busy lives, exploring and celebrating the quality of the light as it played on the solid beauty of their bodies and their villages, revealing where the texture of passing time had left its mark. It is hard not to see the impact of such works on McGhie, in later years.

Following his return to Scotland and marriage, in 1904, McGhie settled in the small, picturesque, fishing village of Pittenweem, on the Firth of Forth. From this time on, he painted the people of the village, the fishermen and women, and the landscape and seascapes around him. McGhie regularly exhibited in Glasgow – where his paintings must have been side-by-side with those of the Glasgow Boys and then the Scottish Colourists – and, from 1906, spent winters in the city, though remaining in his village during the summers (travelling further afield, from time to time, to Cornwall, the Orkneys and Iona, in the Western Isles). In the early 20th century, in addition to the scenes of coastal village life, McGhie was commissioned to paint portraits and, by 1911, he was established and successful, showing his work both at home and at the RA, in London.

Throughout the rest of his long career, McGhie’s regular practice was to spend time painting on the spot, travelling with his easel, paints, panel or canvas. He concentrated on the effects of light and weather, on the sky and sea, on the robust, rocky shore, and on the local people, whom he depicts with particular affection. His output ranged from fairly small paintings, executed en plein air and capturing the every-day lives of his neighbours, to much more finished portraits of dignitaries, beautifully drawn from life. But it is in the former genre – which displays McGhie’s love of buttery paint, swift, descriptive passages of colour, and fresh and blustery light – that one finds some of the most interesting works. These pictures display a restrained but remarkably subtle handling of colour, and are imbued with a profound attachment to the particular place, to the experience of the light, wind and tide at a particular moment. There is, too, a sense that McGhie held the ordinary people of the village in his heart, with great attachment, recognising their beauty - and also, perhaps, expressing a melancholy at the inevitable passage of time and the ultimate isolation of each individual.

McGhie’s daughter, grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter all attended Glasgow School of Art and, in 2002, the family presented a well-received retrospective of John McGhie’s work. This was held as part of the annual Arts Festival at Pittenweem - still a small and picturesque place by the sea, where the light and the charm continue to attract artists of all kinds.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Interestingly, McGhie was initially apprenticed as an architect, and so it is likely that he had some depth of interest in the work of Mackintosh and his colleagues.

[2] Millais’s 1886 painting, A Child’s World, an evocative picture of his grandson, was employed as an advertisement for Pear’s soap, and then entitled Bubbles. Thus what had been a rather poignant contemplation of the brevity of life became a sentimental picture of a boy playing. Millais’s later art never quite recovered its reputation thereafter!