the extraordinary life of artist James McBey

The story of art and its protagonists in the first half of the 20th century is quite well known. But the procession of star names inventing the various “isms” of art inevitably leaves out artists who chose to operate off-peak, but who were known and celebrated in their day and well rewarded for their work.

One of those artists is James McBey (1883-1959) who found a new champion in the journalist and writer Alasdair Soussi. Soussi not only published a biography of McBey last year, but is now curating an exhibition dedicated to him at the Aberdeen Art Gallery.

“There are many possible reasons why McBey isn’t well known these days,” says Soussi. “He wasn’t exactly clubbable and never really joined the art institute. He was also most appreciated for the now old-fashioned art of etching. But apart from being a great performer, he had an extremely adventurous, almost cinematic life and I think the time is right to reassess both.”

McBey’s biography is indeed a complete one. Born out of wedlock in rural Aberdeenshire in 1883, he had a troubled relationship with his mother, who later committed suicide. He left school at the age of 14 to become a bank clerk, but by his mid-20s he was a largely self-taught and successful artist and etcher. In 1917 he was the official war artist of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force; his portrait of TE Lawrence is part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

On his return from the war, McBey was routinely described as an heir to Rembrandt and Whistler as an etcher and printmaker. His success coincided with a boom in the prices of some of his prints, which fetched up to £30,000 each in today’s money.

The Wall Street crash of 1929 ended the speculative price bubble, but by then McBey had a grand mansion in London. He spent World War II in the United States where he engaged in unsatisfactory but lucrative work painting portraits of business leaders and Supreme Court judges, and in 1946 he returned to North Africa where he spent the rest of his life as a a leading figure lived. among the seedy artistic Moroccan expat scene.

While McBey’s work is held in collections around the world, Aberdeen is his spiritual home, and the gallery there holds an extensive permanent collection of his work. Soussi’s new exhibition acts as a biographical guide to the man behind the art, featuring works of art as well as family photos and diaries.

“He kept everything and recorded everything,” says Soussi. “His diaries are an absolute treasure trove, not least about his very complicated love life.” McBey had numerous affairs before and after his marriage to his wife, Marguerite, the details of which he recorded in code in his diary. A code, it turned out, that Marguerite had cracked.

“He painted and drew his loved ones and he certainly considered them muses, with all that entails,” says Soussi. “But it must also be said that all the evidence indicates that these relationships are not just a one-way street and that he maintained friendships and corresponded with many of his loved ones for the rest of their lives.”

Although Scotland held many dark memories for McBey, the artist continued to visit him and, perhaps surprisingly, maintained the Presbyterian faith of his childhood. He refused to work on Sundays throughout his career, and in later years used his diary code not to record love affairs, but instead messages praising and thanking God.

“He was buried overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar,” says Soussi, “and he was the very definition of a man of the world, but in spite of that and for all his journeys and his trials, a part of him remained a son of Aberdeenshire to the end.”

Shadows and Light: The Extraordinary Life of James McBey is located inside Aberdeen Art GalleryUnpleasant the 28th of May. Shadows and Light by Alasdair Soussi is out now.

Man of the World … five highlights of the exhibition

Soldier Resting, Birsu (1917) (Main photo)
For someone who was initially rejected from active duty due to his poor eyesight, James McBey had an almost unparalleled view of the front row of World War I in the Middle East. He was with British General Edmund Allenby in Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus and Aleppo, and witnessed the 1917 entry of Allenby’s troops into Jerusalem, the first European—and, in fact, Christian—army to occupy the city since the Crusades.

Portrait of Marguerite McBey (1950)
McBey’s wife sits in the garden of El Foolk – the Ark – their home in Tangier. The artist was endlessly unfaithful, but despite several divorces, the two remained married. In the 40 years that Marguerite lived after McBey’s death, she acted as a steward to his life and work, and also became a noted watercolourist.

El Marrakech (1936)
Endlessly absorbed in the light, colors and atmosphere of Morocco, McBey painted markets, street scenes, acrobats or, as here, the sex workers of Marrakech, complete with the lavish fabrics of their clothing. The tombstone of his grave in Tangier reads in Arabic “He loved Morocco”.

Dawn: The Camel Patrol Departs (1919)
This etching on paper achieved a record price for a modern print in the 1920s. It shows an Australian camel patrol conducting reconnaissance in the Sinai desert. McBey traveled with the troop and recorded his own first time on a camel as, “A little nervous, but felt good after takeoff. Doesn’t seem as far off the ground as I thought.

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