Self-taught as an artist, McBey was born in Newburgh near Aberdeen. He worked as a bank clerk from the age of fifteen, learning about art from books. After reading about etching, he became interested in printmaking, producing his first prints using a domestic mangle and building his own printing press. An admirer of Rembrandt’s prints, McBey launched his artistic career in 1910 by travelling to Holland. He returned to live in London before working in Egypt as an Official War Artist in 1917. McBey reached the peak of his popularity as an etcher in the 1920s, but when the print market collapsed due to the Depression he mainly produced portraits on commission. McBey didn’t associate himself with artistic movements, but saw himself as a traditional, skilled craftsman.