World War I prints by James McBey
Even during wartime, when all sketching was prohibited without special permission, James McBey (1883 – 1959) continued to diligently observe and record the events that unfolded before him. His friend, artist and fellow soldier Martin Hardie, reported that McBey “had to depend on thumbnail notes, and on small sketches made in the palm of the hand, and even inside his pocket” to gather the material needed for producing his prints. This dedication comes as no surprise since printmaking had long been McBey’s favored method to capture the landscapes and people he encountered.
Born near the Scottish town of Aberdeen, McBey began a career in banking at the age of fifteen. In the evenings he spent much of his time in the art section of the Free Library. Book by book, McBey studied the work of great artists and taught himself to paint and draw. It was not until he chanced upon Maxime Lalanne’s A Treatise on Etching (published in French in 1866 and translated into English by 1880) that he was introduced to the art form. He quickly became interested not only in the expressive qualities of the etched line, but also in the printing process. In 1902, he drew his first etching on a copper plate purchased from a plumber and created his own printing press by adapting the kitchen laundry ringer. He soon crafted another press with rollers made from a discarded propeller shaft he had found in a local yard.
After more than a decade, McBey left his banking job in 1910 to focus on his artistic ambitions. His early work translated the realities of his native Scotland, from quiet seascapes to animated street scenes and imposing views of Edinburgh Castle. To perfect his craft, he naturally traveled to the Netherlands to study works by one of the greatest etchers of all time, Rembrandt (1606 – 1669). Over the years, he would actually acquire prints by the Dutch master for his personal collection. McBey also visited Spain, where, like Goya (1746 – 1828) and Manet (1832 – 1883) before him, he captured the spectacular nature of bullfighting. In Morocco, he drew inspiration from the crowded marketplaces and the ever-changing colors of buildings under the brilliant sun. His first solo exhibition was held in 1911 at the renowned Goupil Gallery in London. The show received enthusiastic reviews, and within a month, the gallery had sold more than one hundred of his prints. The year 1911 was a turning point in McBey’s career for yet another reason: he met Martin Hardie, an art critic and curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The two
men developed a lifelong friendship, and Hardie expressed his great admiration for McBey’s work in a catalogue of the artist’s etchings and drypoints, which he published in 1925.
McBey’s war service, under the British army, led him to the northern region of France beginning in February 1916. He was stationed in several different cities, and etched onto metal plates the new realities of war. The artist became fascinated not only with the physical devastation brought on by the conflict, as expressed in many compositions (like Spring), but also with how hostilities affected people’s daily lives. The Carpenter of Hesdin, a sad testament to the consequences of war, shows the overwhelming production of wooden crosses for the graves of French soldiers, while the somber Albert conveys the desolation of a once lively marketplace. One of the few sources of solace for the artist would be the presence of his friend Hardie, of whom he etched a portrait in his military uniform.
Article written by Nelda Damiano