As a student in Aberdeen in the 1980s, I spent many hours wandering around Aberdeen Art Gallery. The prints and paintings of James McBey (1883-1959) were a staple. I vividly remember McBey’s etchings of the Arab world.
As a new biography of the Aberdeenshire-born artist reveals, after McBey’s death in Morocco in 1959, an American collector donated his collection of McBey’s work to the gallery. This led to McBey’s American wife, Marguerite, leaving the gallery her personal archive, providing a print room and library in his memory.
Yesterday, an exhibition of McBey’s art opened in Aberdeen Art Gallery. It has been curated by his biographer, Alasdair Soussi, who has written Shadows And Light: The Extraordinary Life Of James McBey.
A self-taught artist, McBey left school at 15 to become a banker’s clerk. The illegitimate son of a blacksmith’s daughter, Annie Gillespie, and a farmer, he clambered his way to the top of the art world.
The charismatic McBey was a war artist in the Middle East during the Great War. His fresh and respectful depictions of the Arab world were widely sought after. His wartime portrait of Lawrence of Arabia hangs in London’s Imperial War Museum.
In the 1920s, as demand for etchings soared, his Dawn, Camel Patrol Setting Out, broke the record for the sale of a print by a living artist. Critics compared McBey’s work to Rembrandt and Goya, but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 put paid to his rising star. Undeterred, he adapted and turned to painting in oil and watercolour, gaining a large fanbase for his portraits in particular.
McBey’s story – and his art – is beguiling and complex. It’s time for this neglected Scottish artist to be rediscovered.
Shadows And Light is published by Scotland Street Press. Exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery until May 28
In 2019, painter and printmaker, Lesley Burr, known as one of the Glasgow Girls who trained at Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s, travelled to the Canadian Arctic on a revelatory artist’s residency. To mark this trip, Burr has a new exhibition at Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling. A book, Painting The Polar North, vividly illustrates Burr’s ongoing fascination with the natural landscape and the imprint we human beings leave on it.
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