When I had a paper-round in Aberdeen at the age of 13, I regularly delivered the local free sheet to an ordinary Victorian terraced house in the west end that was then called James McBey House. I had no idea why the house had been called that, and I still don’t, since McBey, the First World War artist and renowned etcher, had lived in a completely different part of Aberdeen. McBey is the most famous artist of his period associated with Aberdeen, and the Art Gallery’s drawings room is named after him, holding as it does a lot of his work. This summer in Edinburgh (not a city where Aberdeen is much regarded), looking in vain for a book that wasn’t about Sir Walter Scott, I found McBey’s Autobiography, and was transported back to dark winter mornings and a heavy bag of newsprint across my back. Naturally, I bought it for holiday reading.
Nineteenth-century Aberdeenshire life and rural society is a niche interest, I know, but McBey’s writing is vivid, succinct, unmoralising, and very immediate. His pared-down style is astonishingly modern, and its spareness fits his tough childhood and early adult occupation as a bank clerk when modern boys of his age would barely be thinking about their first exams. He was the illegitimate son of a Newmachar blacksmith’s daughter, and he saw his father perhaps three times in his life. He was acknowledged, but more or less ignored until the elder McBey’s death, when McBey found himself a legatee and executor of a sheep farming estate in Surrey, of all places. McBey grew up in Newmachar with his silently raging mother, whom he always called Annie, and who never referred to the fact that she was his mother, and his loving grandmother Mary Gillespie. The three moved to Aberdeen in 1899 when McBey became their breadwinner at the age of fourteen, as an apprentice clerk in the Aberdeen branch of the North of Scotland bank. He stayed with the bank for eleven years, rising in its complicated hierarchies due to his hard work, reliability, and conscientiousness. His descriptions of Victorian banking practice as he was moved around Scotland and the UK as a reliable trouble-shooter, the close-mouthed taciturnity of Aberdonians, the strange psychological sufferings of his mother as she became blind, and the kindness of individuals – such as the police inspector who managed the case to keep the press at bay in a case of suicide –make marvellous reading. McBey’s writing voice brings the past to life, straightforward and thoughtful: an ordinary man recalling a life long gone by.
McBey wrote this autobiography when he had become an established painter, with fame and a distinguished war record. He wrote the account in 1947, when he was living in Morocco, and deliberately ended the story at the point he began his career, since the later part of his life was then much more widely known. But no publisher wanted his early life, and the manuscript stayed unnoticed and forgotten in the drawer in which McBey kept his working collection of soft white paper. After his death the Houghton Library at Harvard University was offered the paper, and the manuscript of the autobiography was rediscovered. It was first published in 1977.
It’s hard to pull out one particular instance that epitomises the style and warmth of the writing that bring to life this eager, dutiful, diligent boy and man. He seemed to have nothing else in mind but drawing, or doing his homework and bank duties properly. His early drawing attracted attention very early on, because he was so young to demonstrate such innate skill, with no art education whatsoever. His later painting and etching attracted aggressive indifference, since how could a bank clerk presume to be an artist? He learned not to draw attention to himself, and learned his art where and when he could, from other artists (even if he did not care for what they produced), and the books in Aberdeen’s Public Library. He began to exhibit, eventually in Edinburgh, and to sell etchings. He became a stand-in bank manager in Fife solely so he could catch the Saturday lunchtime train to Edinburgh every week to visit the Whistler exhibition. He was deputed as the escort to the bank’s biannual gold consignment to the Bank of England, and had a week free in which he rushed to Paris to see as much art as he could manage, barely eating or sleeping in order to cram it all in.
The most heartening image in the book is McBey’s first oil painting, done of his grandmother in 1901. It was returned to him in the 1950s, due to a note he had carefully inserted between the canvas and the frame, authenticating his work, and asking for its return. The old woman’s eager expression and hopeful countenance tells you everything that you need to know about how she felt about her grandson, such a dutiful and reliable boy, who supported her for the rest of her life. You can’t help but feel warmly towards him, seeing the image he made of the most important person in his life.
The Early Life of James McBey: An Autobiography, edited and introduced by Nicolas Barker (1977, Canongate 1993), ISBN 0 86241 445 8