Important Aboriginal + Oceanic Art
27 March 2013


(c.1840 - 1901)

sketchbook with 14 images, pen and black ink on paper, the first two with traces of blue ink

21.5 x 28.5 cm each

$200,000 - 300,000
Sold for $228,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 28 - 27 March 2013, Melbourne

R.M. Lucas, acquired for T. Lucas, at Wahgunya, Victoria in 1881
Thence by descent
Private collection, South Africa

Catalogue text

Tommy McRae was the most prolific nineteenth-century Aboriginal artist from south-eastern Australia. According to Andrew Sayers, author of the innovative book and exhibition Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century, the breadth of McRae's work combined with available historical detail, offers 'the most complete picture we have of an Aboriginal artist in nineteenth-century Australia'. The recent discovery of a previously unknown sketchbook, complete with 14 finished drawings, is exciting, adding to our knowledge, and appreciation of McRae's distinctive oeuvre.

McRae, known variously as Yakanduna, Warra-uea, Tommy Barnes, and Tommy McCrae (c1840 - 1901), was born and lived his life in the Upper Murray River area around Wagunyah and Corowa on what is now the Victorian and New South Wales border. He is thought to have be longed to the Kwat Kwat clan, now agreed to be part of the larger Wiradjuri nation. This period of history was indeed a time of exceptionally rapid and characteristically destructive change for Aboriginal people. European settlers first moved across the country, taking over agricultural land in the 1830s and 1840s, while the Victorian gold rushes of the1850s brought an explosion of outsider population, including many Chinese people.

This is when we first hear about McRae, as a stockman working on various local pastoral properties. Sometimes he travelled between the Upper Murray River and Melbourne, where he had relations at the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, probably still following the connections and trade routes of his people. Soon after, in the early 1860s we have the first notice of his drawings. These appear to be both confident and complex works, narrative, almost episodic in style. They depict a range of activities associated with 'olden times', such as ceremonial dancing, warfare and hunting scenes, including illustrations of squatters dressed in their finery and goldfield's Chinese apparently fleeing from Aboriginal warriors.

By 1866 McRae had moved to a traditional camping area at Lake Moodemere near Wahgunyah where he remained with his family, until his death. An account given by the Kilmore Free Press in September 1888 describes McRae as having adapted well to the massive changes that shaped his life. He comes across as a very independent and enterprising individual, an expert fisherman and teetotaller, who owns a good horse-drawn wagon, and 'lives in a somewhat civilised fashion'. The article goes on to say that McRae is 'somewhat of an artist, and the sketch book which he fills in his moments of leisure are much sought after, and their sale forms no inconsiderable portion of his income'.

The sketchbook acquired in 1881 by Richard Lucas for his brother Thomas, and now offered for sale by direct descendants living in South Africa, was made during McRae's time at Lake Moodemere. The book is identical in format to several others that are known (in all, at least ten sketchbooks have survived into the twenty-first century, and are mainly in public collections), and includes a tantalising inscription. It recalls Christmas 1881, when the Lucas family were recently arrived at Wahgunyah, seeking a better climate for family members afflicted with tuberculosis. It would have been fascinating if Mr Lucas had elaborated on his encounter with Tommy McRae, but we have to thank him, and his descendants, for treasuring and preserving these beautiful sketches over the last 132 years.

The sketchbook is indeed an item of treasure, filled with fourteen full sketches, many including multiple vignettes or stories. There are no annotations, but in most cases the pictorial meaning is clear. Included are the usual images for which McRae is now justly famous. His spare, but gifted portrayals of traditional life, ceremonies, dancing, warfare and hunting, often possess a humorous twist. Hunters need to be on their toes, as a goanna nips at the heels of one; in another, they appear to rail against the clever possum that has escaped their capture to a high vantage point in a tree.

The energy of McRae's figurative style is apparent in his ceremony, dancing and warfare sketches, and it is almost certain that, like his contemporaries William Barak and Mickey of Ulladulla, these drawings with apparently repeated subject matter, may reveal stories which describe actual events. In the sketch 'A confrontation' a group of tribesmen brandish their spears, boomerangs and shields in a rather aggressive display, while their leader, dressed in a possum skin cloak appears to be confronted by a single brave warrior, possibly from another group. It is definitely more likely that McRae was telling a real story, rather than just creating figures to fill a page!

Most intriguing of the sketches is that of the 'Squatter and Aboriginal stockman with Chinese man in trees'. In McRae's depictions of men in European dress, some are squatters, and others likely to be Aboriginal stockmen or shearers who have spent their pay on stylish dress. These two are in amicable conversation, while a Chinese man strolls amongst some trees, also wearing very distinctive garb (umbrella-like hats of basketwork and long bamboo poles balancing their other belongings).This is quite a peaceful view, different from the possibly more humorous sketch, which shows an 'Aboriginal man chasing Chinese man and fight scene'. We most likely will never know the truth of meaning in McRae's art, but his obvious enjoyment in its creation is a delight to behold. Let us hope that the increasing knowledge and popularisation of Australia's nineteenth century Aboriginal artists leads to further discoveries of such wonderful cross-cultural works.

Sayers, A., Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, in association with the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1994
Eagle, M.,'Tommy McCrae', 2008 (2011), in Dictionary of Australian Artists Online, 'A Novel Native', Kilmore Free Press, Kilmore, Victoria, 1 September 1888, p. 3