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

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

Written by Scots 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 won fame as a largely self-taught artist who captured crucial moments in history.

Yet although he achieved fame and fortune and his work hangs in galleries across the world, he has not achieved the posthumous recognition he deserves, according to Soussi.

%image('16125227', type="article-full", alt="James McBey's portrait of Lawrence of Arabia")

“He is a sleeping giant of Scottish, British and European history,” he said.

“Anyone seen as the next big thing after Rembrandt is certainly one of the great figures of Scottish history. He was an international Scot and I think that is really important because, although we are a small country, we have produced an unbelievable amount of talent and James McBey fits into that. If you read the newspapers from the 1920s especially, he was very famous, very celebrated and found himself in different places across the world during iconic moments.

“He should be better known and I am hoping that this book will go some way to making good on that.”

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

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

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

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

“I discovered he was Scottish, born illegitimately in the late 19th century north east Scotland and had lived an incredible life.”

%image('16125228', type="article-full", alt="McBey's 1952 oil composition of his domestic servant, Zohra, painted in Tangier")

It made Soussi wonder how it was not more well known that a Scotsman had painted the oldest existing portrait of Lawrence which now hangs in the Imperial War Museum and many of the major protagonists in the Middle East during the First World War.

The portrait of Lawrence is particularly evocative because he was troubled by the knowledge that Britain was going to renege on giving the Arabs a state, intending to carve up the Middle East with France instead.

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

“Another thing to say about him is that although he was a man of his time, nowhere did I see him with any racist or pejorative views of other peoples – he was an internationalist. 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 etchings based on his drawings which sold well, greatly enhancing his reputation. Soon they were fetching prices at auction only achieved previously by Old Masters and he was commissioned to paint portraits of high profile people like Sir Harry Lauder and RB Cunninghame Graham.

HOWEVER in 1929, the Wall Street crash hit the market in etchings, with the result that McBey concentrated on oils and water colours from then on, settling in Tangier where he painted many of the local people, including his young domestic servant. It is this painting which has been dubbed 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 quite how to square his illegitimate past with his present. His mother took her own life – she hanged herself in their tenement flat in Aberdeen so Scotland for him had very bleak memories.”

Despite this, Soussi says McBey could not help returning to his homeland.

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

While the book sets out McBey’s successes it pulls no punches when it came to his weaknesses – the chief one being women. He continued to have affairs after his 1931 marriage to a beautiful American, Marguerite Loeb, who was 20 years his junior.

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

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

“These woman had their own lives and one of my biggest achievements, I think, was to find out more them,” he said.

One reason McBey may have been largely forgotten, according to Soussi, is that he refused to play the establishment game.

“He was his own man,” he said. “He left Britain and set up shop in Morocco; he wasn’t bothered about knighthoods or being a member of clubs, so while all his contemporaries were getting knighthoods that did not impress him.”

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

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