Tommy McRae was the most versatile of the nineteenth-century Aboriginal artists. His sketchbooks, which were produced for a western audience, abound with images ranging from individual studies of birds, to hunting scenes, corroborees, dances, skirmishing groups of Aboriginal men, Aboriginal men in western dress, squatters, Chinese people and historical scenes.
Known variously as Yackaduna, Tommy Barnes and Thommy McCrare, Tommy McRae was born in Albury and spent his life in the district around Wahgunyah, the Yackandandah River and Lake Moodemere, where the majority of his known drawings were executed. He was a well-informed man who attempted to maintain a life independent of government interference. His second wife Lily could read and write, and in the late 1890s McRae used the European legal system to seek monies owing to him by a photographer.
Drawings by McRae had been collected by the artist Theresa Walker in the early 1860s and it was around this time that McRae met Roderick Kilborn, a Justice of the Peace, vigneron and telegraph master, who was to become his chief patron. Kilborn supplied the artist with paper and drawing materials, usually in the form of commercial note or sketchbooks and pens and ink—black, purple, blue and sometimes red.
By the 1880s McRae was producing sketchbooks of drawings on commission from settlers in the area as well as travellers who sought out his camp. This provided the artist, who was noted as being non-drinking and industrious, with money to purchase a horse and buggy from which he would sell such items as possum-skin rugs and Murray cod.
The corroboree was one of McRae’s favourite subjects. Melbourne tribe, Victoria—war dancec 1890s is typical. A line of Aboriginal men, two deep, occupies the whole width of the sketchbook page. Their bodies are painted in geometrical designs, they have bunches of leaves tied below their knees. In their hands they hold short spears or clap sticks, with which they confront each other or raise above their heads as they dance. Above to the right is a smaller but related drawing, which shows a standing ‘leader’ with headdress marking the rhythm for a group of three women who are perhaps beating possum skins stretched across their legs.
The story of William Buckley, a convict who absconded in 1803 and lived with the Victorian Aboriginal people for the next 32 years, was well known. The story was popular with McRae, who often portrayed aspects of the narrative including Buckley’s first meeting with Aboriginal people and his participation in Aboriginal life, such as dancing in corroborees.
McRae did not inscribe his drawings with titles—these were added by the owner of the album, sometimes after explanations by the artist. Victorian Blacks—Melbourne tribe holding corroboree after seeing ships for the first time is a variation on the Buckley theme. The three-masted ship (probably drawn from a newspaper jobber’s block) dramatically enters from the upper left, setting the scene for the corroboree below. McRae is again particular in his observation: the dancers are decorated with body paint, have leaves tied below their knees and flag-like headdresses. A centrally placed tree with a possum in its lower branches is frequently used motif.
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010