back to works by this artist go to previous work   go to next work

James McBey

1883 - 1959

The Sussex by James McBey

The Sussex   1916

  Original etching with drypoint.
Signed and numbered in ink.
Ref: Hardie 171
S 240 x 417 mm; P & I 209 x 384 mm
Excellent impression of the completed image, numbered ‘III’ from the only edition of 76 signed proofs.

This magnificent etching of the torpedoed Sussex, along with McBey’s companion subject of France at her Furnances, are widely considered to be the outstanding masterpieces of James McBey's early war work.

The Sussex, a British mail-boat and passenger ferry, had been torpedoed by a German submarine in the English Channel – with about 380 passengers on board. The wreck of the vessel, her shattered bow blown off, is seen beached on the wet sands near Boulogne where she had been towed by rescue vessels. A French soldier stands as sentinel, and in the shadow of the hull a sad procession is seen carrying out the dead.

Made in 1916, before McBey was appointed an official war artist, this drypoint was based on thumb-notes, and on small sketches made in the palm of the artist's hand or on the inside of his pocket, as sketching was against wartime regulations and in many instances could be considered spying.

McBey visited the scene of the wreck night after night, making endless tiny sketches of her tragic hull which he would work up into composition studies upon returning to his room. From these he evolved what is one of the noblest and most spiritual of all his plates. There is a magical sincerity about this image in its restrained beauty, at once solemn, arresting and strangely moving in its effect.

The final composition of The Sussex required the approval of the Official War Censor prior to publication of the plate.

The German U-boat attack on the Sussex was a pivotal incident in the First War World. The sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 had already enraged American sentiment against Germany and had resulted in some curtailment of U-boat activities. However, the lack of a breakthrough on the Western Front by 1916 led Germany to resume unfettered U-Boat warfare against ‘armed’ merchant ships – although passenger ships were not to be targeted, in an attempt to avoid dragging the U.S.A. into the war. The 'mistaken' attack on the Sussex, which resulted in 25 American civilian casualties, prompted a furious reaction from America with President Woodrow Wilson threatening to sever diplomatic ties with Germany if it did not immediately abandon this style of warfare. The result was the ‘Sussex Pledge’ given by Germany, guaranteeing that passenger ships would not be sunk and merchant ships would not be attacked without confirmation of weaponry onboard. The Germans kept this pledge until 1917 when they attempted, unsucessully, to score a decisive victory in the North Atlantic – this volte-face served only to antagonise America and the U.S.A. entered the war in April 1917.

Amongst those killed in the attack on the Sussex was the celebrated Spanish composer Enrique Granados, Prince Bahram Mirza Sardar Mass’oud of Persia, and the Irish tennis player Manliff Goodbody.

On cream laid paper, watermarked J Whatman, with full margins, as issued. Excellent original condition.