James McBey's parents were Scottish peasants. Abandoned by his father, he was raised by his mother and her family in abject poverty, in the harsh, bleak countryside of Buchan, close to the north sea coast line. At the age of fifteen he gained employment with a bank in Aberdeen and from then on supported himself, his mother, and grandmother until his mother’s suicide in 1906. With no remaining family ties, James McBey now embarked upon a career as a professional artist – a career which was to propel him far from his humble origins to great financial success and international fame.
Self-taught as an etcher, James McBey is widely regarded as the leading figure of the British Etching Revival. His work dominated British etching during the early part of the 20th century and the popularity of his prints was without parallel. A single impression of his etching Dawn, The Camel Patrol Setting Out, realised the highest price ever attained for a living etcher’s work in this country when it sold for £445 at auction in 1928. In 1931 James McBey married the American heiress Marguerite Loeb. James Mcbey is often cited as being the most commercially successful Scottish artist between the two World Wars.