1883 – 1959
One of the greatest British etchers of the 20th century, James McBey’s prints, together those of fellow Scots David Young Cameron and Muirhead Bone, provide a vital link between the etchings of James McNeill Whistler, the early years of etching revival and the phenomenal ‘boom’ in the etching market during the 1920s—a period when more etchings were made, editioned, published, exhibited, sold and resold than at any other time.
McBey’s career began as a bank clerk until, at the age of 26, he determined to become an artist. His first etching was made in 1902 and the influence of Whistler was already evident; his early Scottish plates caught the attention of dealers and collectors alike. His trip to Holland in 1910 introduced him to the work of Rembrandt and it was here that he discovered the merits of using antique papers. McBey returned to London then travelled to Spain in 1911 as a result of which he made seven etchings about bull fighting, among them A Fierce Bull and The Ovation to the Matador. The latter was ‘hailed as a masterpiece’ when first exhibited. By now he was exhibiting in the Goupil Gallery, London: earning the respect and praise of those doyens of the print world, Martin Hardie and Malcolm Salaman, his exhibitions sold out. Working towards his next exhibition, McBey went to Morocco in 1912, making fourteen etchings that included The Jewish Quarter, Tetuan.
By the outbreak of World War 1, he was living and working in London. The city featured little in his oeuvre but Repairing a Barge, Bermondsey is one a number of plates concerned with shipping and mercantile life along the River Thames. During the War, McBey was stationed in Boulogne, where he was sent in 1916, and his wonderfully rich drypoints France at her Furnaces and The Carpenter of Hesdin were made in early 1917, shortly before the War Office made him official artist to the Palestine Expeditionary Front. ‘The First Palestine Set’ of eight etchings and drypoints, made after drawings at Gaza, Jerusalem and the Sinai Desert, were made in 1920, amongst these The Sniper and The Surrender of Jerusalem. In February that year he made The Pianist of which Guichard remarked ‘[is] a brilliant psychological study in the electric light which astonishes by the minimal delineation of [the] three heads’ (British Etchers, 1977).
McBey continued working upon War Office projects into the 1920s, made a short visit to Holland which resulted in further plates of Dutch subjects, and in September 1924, in the footsteps of many British artists, not least Whistler, he visited Venice. His 32 etched plates of Venice arguably represent the pinnacle of McBey’s career as a printmaker, where his economy of line, impressionistic treatment of surface, and dramatic effects of light are at their most honed in plates such as The Passing Gondola, Sotto Portico, and The Doorway. McBey was never again to find a subject like ‘The City of Light’ that could so fire his imagination. He made several portrait etchings and numerous subjects along the east and west coasts of America, from New York to San Louis Obispo. His new plates, though few in number, were published up until 1944, but in these there is little of the earlier vitality and vision that had made him the most celebrated and sought-after etcher of his day.