‘IT was an honour to think that every step was a step nearer the west. Where I am I always want to walk to the west. As well as from a desire to get to an ocean coast, from a wish to be going with the sun.”

Well that’s Jack Yeats and he’s not talking about the USA, he’s talking about the west of Ireland; but what about the west of Scotland? I have been reading Joseph Farrell’s fascinating essays in The National about Ruskin and William Sharp/Fiona MacLeod and the Celtic revival – twilight if you insist – and it occurs to me that Scotland’s and Ireland’s two greatest artists of the Celtic revival period and its aftermath are not nearly well enough known in each other’s countries. They are William McTaggart (the elder, 1835-1910) and Jack Yeats (1871-1957) who was the younger brother of “Spooky Willie”, otherwise known as WB Yeats.

They are representatives of a Gaelic environment in which the Gaelic languages and their influence were prominent. McTaggart and Yeats were not known to each other. Nor, I understand, did they know each other’s work. In any case McTaggart is by far the earlier of the two artists. Yeats only flirted with the idea of learning Irish Gaelic, but McTaggart was a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic. However, both painters came from a Celtic western seaboard – and I am prepared to assert this of Yeats because he practically said so himself when he wrote “in every book there is somewhere in it a memory of Sligo … to which lovely place the beak of my ship ever turns, as turns the beak of the rushing carrier pigeon of the skies to his old harbourage”.

Both artists, however, worked mainly on the east coast of their respective nations (where the galleries and the buyers were to be found), Yeats in Dublin, McTaggart in East Lothian; but they regularly revisited the west, and neither of them made any significant paintings of anywhere outside their own countries. In McTaggart’s case the figures, such as they are, are anonymous and the landscapes, though identifiable, do not necessarily feature in the titles.

McTaggart The Storm 1890
Take a painting like The Storm: the figures are so subsumed into the freedom of the painting and a colour scheme driven by the elements, that they are at first hard to spot, though there are several, some seeking shelter, others happy enough where they are although, to many an urban dweller, they and the artist who painted them with such technical abandon for 1890 are practically in the centre loop of a whirlwind.

The National:

McTaggart and Yeats shared a love for similar land and seascapes and they had a knowledge of the history and of the people belonging to the western seaboard, which included a shared mythology; and they responded to that visual and cultural inheritance with radical assertions of painterly freedoms. As Professor Murdo MacDonald has written of McTaggart: “This Gaelic-speaking painter laid the basis for modern Scottish art, both through technical innovation and by the societal and historical reflection in his work.”

The work of McTaggart and Yeats in many respects offers us a new theory of vision. That is why this next section of what I have to say deals with the geography of the west for, if there is a “New Theory of Vision” to be found in the work of these two great artists, it is one driven by the dynamic interdependence of existence and perception that such an environment imposes.

Here we run into the Celtic Twilight. It is a reality. The length of twilight or gloaming (assumed as that period between sunset and the sun being 5° below the horizon) relates to Scotland’s latitude. Twilight at midsummer at N 57° is 60 minutes, whereas at Athens at N 38° it lasts only 29 minutes, and about 20 minutes at the Equator. Perhaps in response to this fact, Gaelic has more than 20 different words or expressions for twilight, with a further seven referring to dusk, some referring to colour (liath-fheasgair, gormadh, dubh-thràth, dubhar), others to the broken nature of the light (breac-sholas). Our relatively high latitude makes for considerable alterations in the character and angle (both horizontal and vertical) of sunlight between summer and winter. Most features will at some time or another have nearly three-quarters of their lateral appearance thrown into relief by direct sunlight. It is true that northern faces are mostly only lit from a low angle but otherwise, light may strike any object from a vast variety of angles, never mind the fact that the west of Ireland and Scotland rejoice in large and complex fresh and seawater features which reflect light upwards.

When Jack Yeats painted There Is No Night, his was more than a Biblical assertion. That north summer light, and its counterpart, the low-angled tussock-searching light of midwinter, is an important element in the treatment of colour. Add to these the seasonal changes in plants and marine life, and the regular dousings given to rocks and plants that might have momentarily settled into dusty obscurity, and you have a visual environment which ensures that the surfaces of things are constantly being refreshed, constantly being lit in different ways, for the Celtic-speaking communities live in western maritime locations impinged upon by oceanic weather systems crossing west-east. As a consequence, while the climate may be described officially as temperate, it is capable of extremes. High winds, high rainfall, substantial tidal differences and flows, all add to this highly dynamic environment. John Berger memorably described the environment in the west of Ireland to which Jack Yeats’s paintings returned time and again and which equally describes the west of Scotland and the work of McTaggart: “The land is as passive as a bog can be. The sky is all action … a dancer, tender and wild alternately, and then furious, ripping her clothes and parading her golden body to get just one glimmer of response from the peat. And she gets it. For in the ruts and bog puddles and along the wet shoulders of a tarpaulin the water flashes back, seeming by contrast with its surroundings even brighter than her.”

It’s a challenge. “The dramatically changeable weather conditions” of, for example, Iona, the sacred island on the west coast of Scotland, are referred to with respect to the Scottish colourist Francis Cadell’s work in paintings such as The North End, Iona from around 1914. The same applies to his friend and colleague Samuel Peploe, as in Green Sea, Iona from around 1931. Decades before, McTaggart saw a similar interface. He even painted in it. There is a famous photograph of him at work on a vast canvas on Machrihanish beach, one of his sons bracing the easel against the wind. McTaggart is attempting to capture what he can, while he can.

But nobody can paint as fast as a wave breaks and McTaggart changed his paintings frequently from memory, just as his great Irish successor Jack Yeats was to do. They were working in an environment which was full of flux. The clouds may flit across John Constable’s Dedham Vale, but compared to the Gaelic-speaking western environment, his was an easy task; a little patience was all that was required. For those working on the Atlantic seaboard, or close to it, even setting up a canvas was a dangerous procedure, never mind recording anything upon it – and for both artists they were recording not just what they saw, but the memories of the peoples who lived there over many centuries.

McTaggart The Coming of St Columba 1895
McTaggart’s The Coming of St Columba, painted in 1895, shows Columba’s curragh under sail and oars, watched only in part by a family group lying on the grassy slopes of Kintyre. But the curragh, though central, is small, there is another boat on the sea in the distance, and the woman and child are oblivious to it all and, like so many of McTaggart’s figures, are not readily distinguishable from their environment. Are we seeing the actual day Columba arrived, bearing with him the Christian faith, or are we seeing people today and a vision, a memory forever imprinted upon the consciousness of the community? This is time travel of a truly poetic sensitivity. It is not portentous: there is no reception committee on the shore. There is a simple maritime reality and yet it is full of meaning. One of the realities that gives it its power is the fact that the artist himself does not intrude. The imagined scene is painted with the utmost humility.

The National:

Jack Yeats The New Ballad c1915
Jack Yeats was equally aware of the historical environment in which so many of his paintings were placed. Take the simple coloured print, The New Ballad c1915. We see that the town with its fine bridge and the cottages on the hill are as nothing compared to the standing stone raised by their ancestors and which is paralleled by the striding upright of a man destitute of all save song, but what makes the man and the stone heroic is the context – the drama of the mountains, the sky and the sea and the wonderfully achieved perspective of the whole. Here we encounter the fundamental difference between these two great artists. Yeats espoused the heroism of resistance where, in McTaggart, it is at best implied, but is largely absent in any political sense. The New Ballad is, however, very political, for it was the traditional ballad singers of Ireland who kept the flame of freedom alive in even the most far-flung communities, and against all the odds. The little town is self-contained. There are no living people in it. The ballad singer has many ballads hanging from his belt. Has he sold a single one? Probably not, but he strides forward, singing from his own wares nonetheless, as powerful a presence as the standing stone, and fit company for the mountains. Thirty years later, similar elements are brought together in Yeats’s The Two Travellers.

The National:

Jack Yeats The Two Travellers 1942
In this great painting, from 1942, Yeats shows us an encounter in just such a landscape and with a palette as vivid as I have been asserting is natural fact. The painting presents us with a meeting in which the colours of the landscape are shared by the men’s clothing and in which the two men, though standing proud and strong in their environment, are, nonetheless, pretty nearly dominated by mountain, sea and sky. Had Yeats not imbued their presence, their stance and conversation with strength, he could have given the painting a very different title. The strength of human presence in the landscape goes far back in his work, but it is never ever one of dominance over it – and anyone who has to live and work in such an environment knows very well that any such thought is simply ludicrous. In such places we have to learn to live with the majestic and the sublime on a daily basis. We are travellers within them. We possess nothing.

The National:

Both McTaggart and Yeats had also to come to terms with the realities of displacement and emigration in their respective countries, and both gave moving homage to the beauties of the environments from which their people had been evicted. But what has all this got to do with the “New Theory of Vision” I have proposed? I’ll have a go at that next week.