The conflict images of the underappreciated First World War artist James McBey

Ahead of the 130th anniversary of the Scottish war artist James McBey’s birth, experts are calling for his work to receive greater recognition, Alasdair Soussi writes.

His death amid the sun-kissed reaches of Tangier, Morocco, in 1959 was perhaps a curious end for a man who began life in the cold, harsh surroundings of northern Scotland at the latter end of the 19th century. Throughout his near 76 years, his life was an epic journey of highs and lows, of tragedy to triumph that, taking in some of the world’s most exotic locations, saw him parade his talents as one of Britain’s most successful and sought-after artists.

James McBey, who was born 130 years ago next month, may today find resonance with only the keenest of art lovers, but as the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, his contribution to documenting one of the bloodiest conflicts known to mankind will be brought sharply into focus. For while McBey succeeded in depicting the terrible events of the Western Front with etchings in France upon his own entry into the war in 1916 as a second lieutenant in the Army Printing and Stationery Services, he rose to an even greater challenge when he was appointed official war artist to the British Expeditionary Force in the vast sun-beaten lands of the Middle East.

“His drawings are a comprehensive and honest record of his travels with the Allied troops,” says Jenny Wood, the senior art curator at London’s Imperial War Museums (IWM), of McBey’s eastern campaign, which saw him begin work in Cairo in 1917. “In his subtle and delicate images, troop activity is always shown in the context of the uncompromising landscape and harsh light. By implication, these troops are celebrated for being able to survive and operate in a challenging environment. While many artists showed the hard operating conditions in the devastated landscape of the Western Front, McBey was important in showing the fighting conditions in a very different theatre of war. He was also conscious of the antiquity of the region and respectful of the inhabitants in a period where popular opinion viewed the conflict through the lens of the Crusades and Orientalism.”

McBey was born on December 23, 1883, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. An illegitimate child, McBey’s formative years were spent with a mother who, he was to recall in his memoirs, showed him scant love and affection and who brought him up to simply address her as Annie, and a grandmother whom McBey described as “short, stout and kind”. He was forced to treat Annie with leeches for an eye-condition and he subsisted on frugal meals that, he recalled, were purely life-preserving and “not to be enjoyed”. Life at school for the young McBey was no easier – but real tragedy struck in his early 20s when Annie hung herself. McBey found her body, cut her down and ventured outside to report the matter to the doctor and the police. On reflecting on Annie’s death, he would write that “it was possible that by leaving as she did she felt she would be making life less difficult for me”. At this time, McBey was working at his local bank – as he had been since his mid-teens – a daily monotony from which he would escape by reading art books in Aberdeen City Library and teaching himself etching. In 1911, and a year after resigning from the bank, McBey put on his first London art exhibition, where his prints were warmly received. His wartime service began in January 1916 and soon he was embarking on a new artistic front that would see his stock rise – and his talents widen.

“McBey had travelled to Morocco in North Africa in 1911 and was seen to have the relevant experience and aptitude,” explains Wood, who is currently appealing for funds to digitise more of McBey’s work at the IWM. “He went to Egypt as official war artist in May 1917 and for the next 18 months he documented troop activities and the landscape. He travelled widely along the Suez Canal area, into the Sinai Desert with the Australian Camel Patrol of the Imperial Camel Corps and accompanied the Allied advance through Palestine from Gaza to Jerusalem and on to Damascus.”

During this arduous trek, McBey found himself etching and painting some of the most seminal moments – and characters – of the Arab campaign. The likes of The Allies Entering Jerusalem of December 1917 and his Damascus portrait of a gaunt T E Lawrence during his final days with the Arabs in October 1918 – a sitting that was constantly interrupted by a steady stream of sheikhs who knelt before the iconic Brit and kissed his hands in tearful goodbyes – were just two of his many striking contributions to documenting a war effort that repeatedly forced the self-taught Scottish artist to adapt to his surroundings.

“In desert conditions, the dust precluded working in oils,” remarks Wood, who picks out the delicate watercolour of camels conveying wounded soldiers in cacolets on a slender path in the Judaean Hills as one of her favourite wartime McBeys. “He was only able to work in oils when he arrived in north Palestine.”

For many of today’s war artists, McBey’s contributions are undoubtedly worthy of study – and of extreme admiration. Professor Mario Minichiello is a one-time war artist who puts McBey’s career success down to his elegant simplicity in creating both his war and postwar works.

“The work at first sight looks very simple – he does in many cases draw the ‘back of people’,” says Professor Minichiello, who produced reportage war art for the conflict in Afghanistan in 2001, and today works as an academic at the University of Newcastle, Australia. “This invites you to look around the figures as if you were in the same space as them. This should be understood as positing drawing as reportage so that events may be directly experienced in a very graphic, if understated, sense. The drawn line as a mark is based on the response to the world as it is seen, but it is also the work of a craftsman printer … I feel, too, that his images are drawn in a manner, which is designed to intensify the viewer’s reading of the figures and its elements. This renders the figures the subject of detailed scrutiny, and … I believe, gives him his uniqueness as an ­artist.”

McBey’s career was greatly enhanced by his time in the Middle East – and soon after the end of the Great War, demand for his etchings reached considerable proportions. And, though the market for contemporary etchings soon nosedived, the great adapter – and artistic outsider – simply turned his attentions to working mainly in oils and watercolours.

Yet, Minichiello is firm in the belief that, 54 years on since his death, McBey’s “work has been overlooked and should be revised”. Wood agrees and contends that “the demise of the print market in the 1930s, combined with his marriage to an American and spending his time thereafter mainly in America and Morocco, meant that British awareness of this artist had declined by the 1960s”. Still, as far as McBey’s war years in the Middle East are concerned, she is certain of his artistic legacy.

“McBey’s work shows the landscape before the Versailles peace agreements changed and defined the Middle East map for a century to come,” explains Wood. “His drawings show an ancient environment on the cusp of radical change. His work is a powerful touchstone in this subsequent tapestry of change and conflict and deserves to be better known.”

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics.