Issue 230
March/April 2024

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Apr 19, 2024

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Forgotten painter's long life journey from Newburgh-on-Ythan to North Africa

McBey's modest Newburgh birthplace

JAMES MCBEY: unrecognised Scottish artistic genius or philandering war artist from the North East who died in Morocco leaving behind many questions unanswered of his rather dazzling unique and unexamined life?

A young Scottish/Lebanese author and journalist, Alasdair Soussi, has set out to answer this question and his new book, Shadows and Light: The Extraordinary Life of James McBey, is helping to bring Newburgh, the birthplace of McBey, into the cultural hemisphere as an art tourist destination.

TE Lawrence, painted by McBey in 1918

Soussi wrote the book during lockdown after being quite astounded to discover when he was writing an article about something else that touched on Lawrence of Arabia and saw McBey's portrait in the War Museum in London, that no-one else seemed to have written about him.

"This was about ten years ago and I couldn't believe it when I saw it how beautifully it was painted, when I looked at the painter's name, I saw it was McBey, and I thought – that's either Irish or Scottish – I hoped it was Scottish since I am Scottish too.

The young McBey pictured in 1910

"When I realised he was Scottish I looked him up and was blown away to discover that there was so little in existence written about him, in fact the only book in publication was a book that he himself had written.

"That book was only 100 pages long – but it had me hooked, not only was he a brilliant artist, but Mcbey had an incredible talent with words too."

Soussi is now the proud author of the first all encompassing biography of McBey and has travelled extensively promoting his book, in Tangiers and Scotland.

He also curated an exhibition at the Aberdeen Art Gallery last spring promoting the work of McBey and his own book, Shadows and Light.

There were many reasons that drew Soussi to expanding McBey's life story: he was totally fascinated by the young Scot who abandoned a job as a bank clerk in Aberdeen to study at Gray's School of Art at the end of the World War I.

"When I looked at the man, I discovered that James McBey had led the most unique life, a cinematic life, a unique life a rags to riches life, that begins in Victoria's Scotland in 1883 in North east Scotland and ends in postwar Morocco in 1959 and I thought - Wow what happens in that time!?

"I just could not fathom that this man was not only an amazing adventurer who travelled the globe, but he was also considered one of the great artists of the 20th century.

"I thought it was fitting my book was published by a publisher based in Scotland. It's hard nowadays being a writer and extra hard to get a book deal, but I did manage this in the first few months.

"Although McBey was a Scot he wasn't, quote unquote, a parochial Scot, he was an International Scot" Soussi observed.

"He had a very interesting family background, very multi-faceted. He carried a lot of baggage - being born to a single mother, being born illegitimately. Being born to parents nowadays who aren't married is not a big deal. Now in fact people don't even use the phrase ‘illegitimate,' but it was actually written on his birth certificate. He carried that with him all his life; he carried the fact that he didn't feel loved his whole life," revealed Soussi.

"His mother seemed to have had what we could call today depression. Mental health problems. She lost her vision, she started to go blind in her late 20s. There was nothing they could do for her, the illness that she had is easily treated today but back then the only thing they could give her to treat was leeches, he said.

"By the time we get into early 1900s Annie Gillespie, the daughter of a blacksmith was blind. Tragically Annie took her own life and hanged herself when she was 45. Mcbey was in his early 20s, at this time. He found her body in early morning in 1906 and he cut her down and this haunted him and this impacted, him throughout his life not surprisingly" Soussi continued.

"He was a very handsome guy and had a lot of different relationships, some would say he was a womaniser, he kept 50 years of diaries, and many of his affairs are detailed in the diaries."

McBey's spiritual home is probably Aberdeen Art Gallery, as that's where the bulk of his archive is kept."

McBey's wife outlived James by 40 years as she was 20 years younger and after he died she spent a lot of time preserving his legacy – she wrote out a code sheet to explain his diary.

"He was brought up in the presbyterian confines of Scotland. Although he spent many years in Morocco, where he died, he would never work on a Sunday. This is what makes him very multi-layered, complex. Art was the love of his life."

As Soussi writes in the biography, he says: "I'm not writing a hagiography

He had a lot of flaws but the biggest flaw was how he treated women.

He was a bit cavalier with his feelings. He got three women pregnant. But that's because he wanted to be loved and he didn't get love from his mother

He was always looking for female approval just to be recognised and love was one of the things that propelled him" Soussi declared.

"This man should be seen in the same eyes as Burns and Sir Walter Scott" Soussi believes.

"Anyone who is described as an heir to Whistler and Rembrandt should have a special place in history. One of the things that should be remembered is that he was an international Scot.

"He was certainly very international.

Born by the North Sea, he blazed a trail from Scotland to America, across the Middle East, Lebanon, Palestine, what's now known as Israel, North Africa, Morocco.

"A man who is buried in Tangier overlooking the straits of Gibraltar - that's incredible. And his grave stone – says in Arabic - He loved Morocco."

It's no doubt an indication of the passion of the man who did indeed trail blaze far from his humble Newburgh beginnings.

SHADOWS AND LIGHT The Extraordinary Life of James McBey. Published by Scotland Street Press. £29.99. ISBN 978-1-910895-63-4


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