The story of James McBey, the Scottish Rembrandt, revealed in a stunning new book


HE was hailed as the next Rembrandt and painted the famous picture of the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, but James McBey is now largely unrecognized in his native Scotland.

It is hoped that will change with the publication of the first biography of the artistic genius whose work includes the “Moroccan Mona Lisa”.

Written by Scottish author and journalist Alasdair Soussi, Shadows and Light: The Extraordinary Life Of James McBey details how McBey was haunted by his illegitimate birth in Aberdeenshire and the suicide of his mother, but rose to prominence in as a largely self-taught artist who captured crucial images. moments in history.

Yet, although he achieved fame and fortune and his work hung in galleries around the world, he did not get the posthumous recognition he deserves, according to Soussi.

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“He’s a sleeping giant in Scottish, British and European history,” he said.

“Anyone considered the next big thing after Rembrandt is certainly one of the great figures in Scottish history. He was a Scottish international and I think that’s really important because although we’re a small country we’ve produced an incredible amount of talent and James McBey fits into that. If you read the newspapers of the 1920s in particular, he was very famous, very celebrated and found himself in different places around the world during iconic times.

“He should be better known and I hope this book will help to remedy that.”

Probably McBey’s most famous painting is that of Lawrence, painted during his stint as the official British war artist of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1917 and 1918. This means he traveled with the Allied advance in Palestine, from Gaza to Damascus during the First World War. War. Working in both watercolors and oils, McBey produced around 300 pieces, many of which are now in the Imperial War Museum.

Lawrence’s painting was completed in October 1918 and it was this that ignited Soussi’s desire to write the biography.

“About 10 years ago I was writing an article about Lawrence and decided to take a closer look at the painting,” Soussi said.

There he found McBey’s name in the right corner and, his curiosity piqued, wanted to know more.

“I found out he was Scottish, born illegitimately in the late 19th century in the North East of Scotland and lived an incredible life.”

%image(‘16125228’, type=”article-full”, alt=”McBey’s 1952 oil composition of his maid, Zohra, painted in Tangier”)

This led Soussi to wonder how he was not better known that a Scot had painted the earliest extant portrait of Lawrence which is now in the Imperial War Museum and many of the major protagonists of the Middle East during the First World War.

Lawrence’s portrayal is particularly evocative because he was troubled that Britain was going to give up giving the Arabs a state, intending to share the Middle East with France instead.

“It was a pivotal moment in history and McBey saw the Arab region change before his eyes,” Soussi said. “He witnessed this massive change and the betrayal and fragmentation of the region.

“Another thing to say about him is that although he was a man of his time, I didn’t see him anywhere with racist or pejorative views about other people – he was an internationalist. Someone someone asked me recently if he would have supported Scottish independence, and obviously I can’t answer that, but I can tell you he was definitely an internationalist, a man of the world.

After the war, McBey produced a series of prints based on his designs which sold well, greatly enhancing his reputation. Soon they were achieving auction prices only previously achieved by Old Masters and he was commissioned to paint portraits of such figures as Sir Harry Lauder and RB Cunninghame Graham.

HOWEVER, in 1929 the Wall Street Crash hit the etching market, so McBey now concentrated on oils and watercolours, moving to Tangier where he painted many of the locals, including his young servant. . It is this painting that has been nicknamed the Moroccan Mona Lisa.

McBey died in Morocco in 1959 but, although successful, Soussi believes he was haunted by his past.

“He was very multi-layered,” he said. “And he definitely died not knowing how to reconcile his illegitimate past with his present. His mother took her own life – she hanged herself in their flat in Aberdeen, so Scotland had very bad memories for him.

Despite this, Soussi says McBey couldn’t resist returning to his native country.

“Something held him back all the time even though Scotland had a lot of pain associations for him.”

Although the book lays out McBey’s successes, it ignores his shortcomings – the main one being women. He continued to have affairs after his marriage in 1931 to a beautiful American, Marguerite Loeb, 20 years his junior.

“He got at least three women pregnant and was cavalier with their feelings,” Soussi said.

Rather than accept McBey’s diary descriptions of his affairs, Soussi spent a lot of time researching the women behind the names.

“These women had their own lives and one of my biggest accomplishments, I think, was learning more about them,” he said.

One of the reasons McBey may have been largely overlooked, according to Soussi, is that he refused to play the establishment game.

“He was his own man,” he said. “He left Britain and settled in Morocco; he didn’t care about knights or being a member of clubs, while all his contemporaries got knights which didn’t impress him.

Soussi added: “I hope when people get to the end of this book they say ‘wow, he was like John Logie Baird or David Livingstone’ because he was definitely in that bracket. He was and remains a Scottish international.

Shadows and Light: The Extraordinary Life Of James McBey – which will be the subject of an exhibition at the Aberdeen Art Gallery from February to May next year – will be published by Scotland Street Press on December 1. It is available for pre-order from the publisher’s website:


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