James McBey was a remarkable man whose talent, industriousness and commercial sense liberated him from the confines of a difficult early life. He was a devoted traveller and the exotic locations he visited - and the people he encountered there – influenced his work profoundly. This interesting group charts the artist’s journey from self-taught printmaker to established etcher, painter and watercolourist. McBey is now regarded as a leading figure in the revival of British etching in the early twentieth-century, and as one of Scotland’s most celebrated twentieth-century artists.
McBey was born and raised a few miles north of Aberdeen in Newburgh, the illegitimate child of an impoverished mother who was blind and severely depressed. His artistic talent won him accolades at school, but by the time he was fifteen the need to support his mother impelled him to take up work as a clerk at a local bank. In his spare time he cultivated his artistic knowledge and skills by working his way through the art books in the local public library, and focussed on teaching himself to etch which, relative to oil painting, required a more modest arsenal of equipment. McBey’s earliest proofs were made at home (and in secret, for it was considered ‘frivolous’ to be an artist) and were etched into plumber’s copper with a darning needle and printed using a domestic mangle. By the time he was 27 he had produced enough work to hold a small exhibition with John Kesson in Aberdeen. Yet as McBey’s creativity flourished, his mother’s condition declined. Following her tragic death, he departed their tenement flat and moved to London to pursue art full-time.
McBey’s etchings proved incredibly popular with London audiences. His career break came with an exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, where he sold seventy-seven prints, and his most in-demand compositions were those inspired by travels abroad. He had first experienced the benefits of new visual and art-historical stimuli while travelling in the Netherlands in 1910, where he painted, drew, and studied Rembrandt’s etchings in the Rijksmuseum. Visits to Morocco and Spain followed shortly thereafter, and McBey amassed a significant body of work depicting Spanish bull-fighting rings. The thrilling, theatrical atmosphere of the ring is captured in The Ovation to the Matador (c.1911), an interesting early example of watercolour painting from McBey, wherein a bull-fighter in traditional attire presents himself triumphantly. The crowd he faces is unseen, but their jubilant reception is made evident by the matador’s raised arms and delighted expression. McBey adjusted this composition for a dynamic etching of the same title, which evidences his mastery of intaglio to evoke varied qualities of light and shadow. Spain would prove to be a continuing source of inspiration. A Brave Bull, San Sebastian (1932) post-dates the etching market crash which compelled McBey to predominantly work in watercolour and oil paint.
During World War One McBey initially was sent to Rouen with the Army Printing and Stationery Office, but in 1917 was appointed an official war artist, and was commissioned with an Expeditionary Force to the Middle East. During a reconnaissance in the Sinai Desert he produced a celebrated series of etchings, including Strange Signals, which capture the heat of the climate and the intrepid nature of the explorers.
By the age of 30 McBey had become an established and in-demand artist. He was now a member of the leisured class, and enjoyed all the social benefits this entailed - particularly the opportunity to mix with eligible young women. McBey was charismatic, humorous and dashingly handsome, and maintained numerous affairs throughout his life, with the objects of his affection also often serving as artistic muses. One of his most intoxicating affairs was initiated in 1928, when he encountered an American named Frances Gripper. The pair travelled around Scotland and Paris together, and McBey produced several paintings of Gripper. In this exquisite portrait (c.1929) McBey expresses the intensity of his passion in the frenzied brushwork and rich raspberry palette, which is reflected across Gripper’s robe and to her flushed cheeks and lips. McBey conveys her beauty and impish personality, as well as the intimacy shared by the couple in her easy bearing, steady eye contact and self-assured smile. McBey proposed to Gripper in 1929, but she returned to her fiancé in the States. She would continue to preoccupy McBey’s thoughts for years to come.
Perhaps it was this incident that compelled McBey to leave Britain for America. With the assistance of art critic and friend Duncan Macdonald, McBey arrived in Chicago in late 1929 to hold an exhibition. Co-inciding with the Wall Street Crash, the show was not a commercial success, but McBey did make connections with several important American collectors whose support would later prove invaluable. In 1930 he established a studio in Philadelphia, and a diary entry from the 3rd December of that year records that at a dinner he first met Marguerite Loeb, a Sorbonne-educated tobacco heiress with exceptional connections in the art world; she had studied book-binding in 1920s Paris, where she and artist Oskar Kokoschka had been lovers, and afterwards moved to New York where she established a photography studio on West 57th Street. Early in 1931, they travelled to Bermuda with Marguerite’s mother Hortense, and on the boat back to New York, James proposed to Marguerite. On Friday 13th March 1931, three months after the couple had first met, they were wed.
This portrait of Hortense Loeb, Marguerite’s mother, was made shortly after the marriage. The McBeys sailed for England immediately after their wedding, and this portrait may therefore either have been based on studies McBey made while still within the States, or perhaps was made from life during a visit from Hortense. The portrait is rendered with affection, and the subject appears entirely at ease. The ‘July 1931’ accords with her summer-y attire, and she wears a fashionable halter top, which, owing to the 1930s trend for sun tans, were all the rage. McBey’s linear brushwork eloquently describes the interaction of light with his subject, recalling his technical experience as a printmaker: many of his etchings use striation lines to indicate light sources. The deft, pared-back handling of shadow to the background and across Hortense’s dress is also characteristic of an artist used to working with intaglio.
McBey was remarkably industrious. Martin Hardie, who would compile McBey’s catalogue raisonné, recalled following a stay in Venice ‘...never have I known anyone with such untiring energy and passion for work. It began at dawn… at night he would be out again in a gondola working on a copper plate by the light of three tallow candles in an old tin… I have known a day’s bag of an oil sketch, a brace of watercolours, several pen studies and an etching.’
NICK CURNOW | HEAD OF DEPARTMENT
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ALICE STRANG | SENIOR SPECIALIST
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