When Scottish painter James McBey met Faisal I of Iraq

An excerpt from Shadows and Light, journalist and filmmaker Alasdair Soussi's biography of the artist who witnessed some defining moments in modern Arab history while painting portraits of T E Lawrence and the future king

James McBey sketching in Jerusalem in 1918. Photo: Lowell Thomas Papers, Archives & Special Collections, Marist College
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Alasdair Soussi’s Shadows and Light: The Extraordinary Life of James McBey is the first biography of the Scottish artist.

McBey (1883-1959) travelled across the Middle East during the First World War. He had been on the road since the summer of 1917 and had witnessed the Allied forces capture Jerusalem, documenting some important moments and figures in modern Arab history from Cairo to the Holy Land and back again.

The following is an excerpt from Soussi’s book, published by Scotland Street Press and released on December 1.

By the close of September, the Battle of Megiddo had been won by the Allies and it was game on for Damascus. McBey knew that his services would be required in the city, but first he had to return to Jerusalem for some essentials. On 1 October, as the beaten Ottomans retreated from Damascus, he was back on the road racing to meet his own date with destiny.

"Started off in early morning and made good timing," he recorded in his diary that day, after his desert-hardened Ford had burned across the crumbling roads, leaving a trail of thick dust in its wake: "Passed Jenin, El Fule, Nazareth where got hard boiled eggs. Pushed on through Tiberias, where had tea in hotel and thorough good wash. On through the plain into the hills, through Rosh Pina, overtook lorries and at night crossed Jordan Bridge. Hot and moist. Mosquitoes. Lightening all night."

SHADOWS AND LIGHT: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF JAMES MCBEY

Author: Alasdair Soussi

Pages: 300

Publisher: Scotland Street Press

Available: December 1

McBey saw a shimmering Damascus emerge from the smoky air at about 3pm on 2 October, and witnessed long lines of Turkish prisoners and the streets littered with the dead. The following day, he was able to explore the city at first light in all its battle-scarred glory. Soon, a buoyant British press were able to inform readers about the successful conquest.

Newspapers waxed lyrical about the fall of the city for days afterwards, and William Thomas Massey offered his own eyewitness account of the victorious arrival of the Allies: it was, he breathlessly claimed, a day hailed by the native inhabitants "as the greatest in the four thousand years of the history of Damascus".

Sadly, for reasons unknown, McBey leaves blank his diary from 4 October to the twenty-first — and so his immediate impressions of Damascus remain a mystery. In the newly liberated city, Allenby, lieuten­ant general Sir Harry Chauvel — Australia’s Commander of the Desert Mounted Corps — and [T E] Lawrence were just some of the power players trying to take control of the vacuum.

The first biography of Scottish painter James McBey documents his journeys across the Arab world during the First World War. Photo: Joan and John Dickson

The lithe and bearded figure of Emir Faisal was another, who, soon after his own arrival amid the chaos, began plotting the future of an independent Arab state around Damascus, despite the existence of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, a 1916 settlement of duplicitous nature cooked up by Britain and France, which agreed to carve up the region into colonial spheres of influence.

Sir Mark Sykes MP, who had forged the agreement in conjunction with French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot, wrote a poetic account of the liberation of Damascus for The Observer on 6 October. In this account he predicted "the beginning of a new and wonderful era in the history of the Near East". Sykes, whose racist views of the Arabs had earlier been illustrated by an entry in his 1915 book, The Caliphs’ Last Heritage — ‘Arab character (see also Treachery)’ — had his own reasons for celebrating the Allied victory. Within several months he would be dead, taken by the Spanish flu in a Paris hotel room. The pact would be his dubious legacy, sowing the seeds of conflict and division in the region for generations.

Politics aside, McBey was presented in Damascus with a portrait paint­er’s dream. McBey, after shadowing the main thrust of the EEF, would first lay eyes on the mysterious Arabic-speaking Briton T E Lawrence in the city’s volatile surrounds. Lawrence sat for him ‘for only a couple of hours.’ In a letter to Lowell Thomas dated 9 March 1954, the artist elaborated on this atmospheric encounter with Lawrence thirty-six years earlier.

McBey's 1918 portrait of Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. DEA / G Nimatallah

A 70-year-old McBey wrote to Thomas from his home in Tangier, Morocco:

"During the sitting one after another of those bearded chieftains gently opened the door of the room where I was working, tiptoed across to Lawrence and kissed his right hand as it lay on the arm of the chair […] Tears were on the cheeks of some of them. These tears may have been […] part of a farewell ritual (I have seen the technique used here on occasions). Nevertheless it happened, and I saw it. Lawrence showed no reaction, but kept his pose for me admirably."

McBey also captured the dashing figure of Faisal in 1918 Damascus. Lawrence, recalling his first meeting with the Emir in October 1916, gave a hint of the man whom the artist would himself meet, albeit after a further two years of desert warfare:

"Faisal looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender, in his long white silk robes and his brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were dropped; and his black beard and colourless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger."

McBey would have his own story to tell, beginning when he "saw a galloping horse approaching from the horizon" during an evening after the fall of Damascus. "As it got closer the Arab horseman pulled up so sharply that the horse reared and seemed to slide the last few feet in a cloud of dust." Faisal, he was informed by communique, would sit for him at noon the very next day.

King Faisal I of Iraq, centre, pictured at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris. Behind him to the right is Lawrence of Arabia. Getty

"I was piloted to the end of a crowded room where Feisal was holding audience," he noted later: "He greeted me smilingly, and spoke to the interpreter, who translated: 'His Highness wishes to know where you wish him to sit to be photographed.' Tell him he is going to be painted, not photographed, and that he will have to sit steady for an hour, perhaps two. I half expected a refusal, but Feisal merely shrugged his shoulders, and uttered the Arabic 'Ma’alesh' (it does not matter).

"I lured him into a small room, away from the crowd. Faisal sat wonderfully steady for about five minutes, then he suggested lunch, and we adjourned. To my surprise, the many Arab Chieftains, lunching with Faisal, at an enormously long table, sat in European style, used knives and forks although the food was Arabic."

When Faisal returned, McBey placed him on a Savonarola (a chair with an X-shaped frame) on which the Emir sat squirming for the rest of his pose. After the sitting was complete, it turned out that the object of his discomfort had been a loose doorknob, which the Arab leader picked up and hurled across the room in disgust.

McBey’s Damascus portraits of Lawrence and Faisal would be followed by one of [Faisal's] muscular Afro-Arabian bodyguard, and another of Mohammed Ali-el-Mauyed El Aden, a proud and gnarled Arab veteran of sixty-five, who "insisted that the word 'fighter' should be written on the drawing before he would allow it out of his sight."

McBey’s war was not yet over. These had been some of the most thrill­ing encounters of his commission — but other towns and cities in the Arab region remained unexplored and un-sketched. He was a man at the top of his game, but the years leading up to this moment had not been without hardship and pain.

Shadows & Light: The Extraordinary Life of James McBey is available on Thursday.

Updated: November 30, 2022, 11:32 AM
SHADOWS AND LIGHT: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF JAMES MCBEY

Author: Alasdair Soussi

Pages: 300

Publisher: Scotland Street Press

Available: December 1

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