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Tommy McRae’s Sketchbooks

The National Gallery of Victoria has just acquired two extremely important sketchbooks by the great nineteenth-century Kwat Kwat artist Tommy McRae, c.1836–1901. These two artist books transform our holdings of nineteenth-century art, providing the NGV with a series of drawings that celebrate Aboriginal culture of the south-east of Australia and present an Indigenous perspective on both European settlers and Chinese prospectors. McRae’s sharp observation of squatters attired in ‘exotic’ three-piece suits and top hats, and of newly arrived Chinese settlers, reverses the customary equation of coloniser–artists scrutinising colonised native peoples.  

The Notebook, 1875, and Sketchbook, c.1891, are exceedingly rare and have an impeccable provenance, having been originally owned by Roderick Kilborn, McRae’s chief patron and supporter, and passing by descent to his grandson. McRae made the acquaintance of Roderick Kilborn, the Canadian-born telegraph master and justice of the peace at Wahgunyah, in Victoria, during the 1860s. Kilborn commissioned drawings from McRae from 1865 onwards and published articles on the artist in the Corowa Free Press. The Kilborn property, Goojung, was very close to Lake Moodemere, near the Murray River town of Wahgunyah, where McRae and his family lived from at least the early 1880s, producing sketchbooks and possum-skin rugs for sale, raising poultry and selling Murray cod.  

The close association of the artist with his patron is revealed in Kilborn’s inscription on the inside back cover of the Notebook: ‘These sketches were drawn and presented to me by Tommy McRae, an Australian aboriginal of the Murray tribe near Wahgunyah on my leaving Wahgunyah in October 1875’. The Notebook also includes a glossary of common words used by Upper Murray Aborigines in Wiradjuri, the language of McRae’s wife, with English translations. Kilborn entered the glossary after the drawings in 1891, as evidenced by the inscription on the inside front cover: ‘Aust. Native words given to me by Tommy McRae, June 1891, Tribes on the Murray between Echuca and Albury, R. Kilborn’.  

The artist’s beneficial association with Kilborn was not an isolated occurrence for McRae who developed positive relations with a number of pastoralists. Unlike William Barak, he refused to settle at Coranderrk or the nearby Cummeragunja mission, preferring to maintain his independence by working as a stockman for Andrew Hume at Brocklesby station between 1849 and 1857, and for the pastoralist David Reid, who owned Yackandandah and Barnawartha stations during the 1860s and 1870s. Here he was able to act as an entrepreneur, making artefacts and pen and ink drawings. McRae’s experience of gubba (white) officialdom, however, was anything but positive. During the 1890s McRae’s children were taken away and sent to reserves under regulations introduced into the Victorian government in 1890. In order to escape the Victorian regulations, the McRaes moved to Corowa on the New South Wales side of the Murray River in 1893, but on their return to Lake Moodemere, the last child was stolen.  

The Notebook, earlier and smaller than the Sketchbook, and executed in black rather than blue ink, reveals the range of McRae’s iconography and the liveliness of his observation. The drawings are very personal and have an intimacy and spontaneity that makes the two-tiered compositions on separate sheets more stage-managed, by comparison. The drawings across the double pages of the Notebook answer each other like a dialogue and show the way McRae links ideas. People, trees and animals are generally rendered as hatched-in, solid figures, but, when the subject required, McRae carefully delineated body designs, clothing or foliage within the outlined figures. It is an art of rare economy, highly expressive, if somewhat reduced. One double page (fig. 1) illustrates four squatters with walking sticks on the left and two on the right of a boldly drawn tree, bare of its leaves. The addition of a tiny detail adds life to this grouping of country gentlemen, one brandishes a long-stemmed pipe. It is notable that these and other European figures in this Notebook are not rendered as hatched-in solid figures, unlike all the other silhouetted figures depicted. McRae reveals a fascination for their patterned suits, boots and hats and for the fine dress of a colonial lady daintily lifting her long skirt.  

The variety of subject matter recorded by McRae is displayed within the pages of both the Notebook and the Sketchbook. The Sketchbook, executed later, is memorable for its depictions of Aboriginal people hunting, fishing, warring and performing ceremonies. Four hunters, disguised as bushes, stalk emus, while two hunters surround a tree full of birds (fig.3). The fishing, fighting and hunting vignettes are casual records of the moment in contrast to the detailed depiction of a full corroboree (fig. 2) in which all the performers bear different clan designs and are decorated with feather headdresses and leggings. In this, as in other drawings, the sparseness of the style allows the paper to suggest space. The landscape setting is indicated with singular brevity: the ground is loosely marked by a tangle of lines, a single, skeletal eucalypt is suggestive of the bush.  

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art (in 2002).