Tommy McRae

Introduction | Gallery | Listing

Conservation paper (427kb, pdf)

image: Tommy McRae Black fellow spearing emu c 1890s National Gallery of Australia Purchased 1994

Tommy McRae Black fellow spearing emu c 1890s
National Gallery of Australia
Purchased 1994
more detail


The National Gallery of Australia�s small but significant collection of drawings by Tommy McRae (c 1835–1901) offers the most complete picture we have of an Aboriginal artist in 19th–century Australia. McRae lived in the upper Murray area of what is now New South Wales and is one of the best known Aboriginal artists working in Australia at that time. His preferred medium was drawing, usually steel–nibbed pen and ink on paper. His drawings, produced to commission, observed aspects of traditional Aboriginal life through the eyes of an Indigenous artist using European materials. McRae was making his drawings at a time when life around him was changing dramatically and at an unparalleled pace.

Almost all of Tommy McRae’s drawings are in sketchbooks such as those now held in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection; many of the single–sheet drawings that have survived started out as sketchbook pages. In the latter years of his life, McRae sold these sketchbooks from his family camp on the edges of Lake Moodemere, close to the Victorian border town of Wahgunyah. At the camp McRae and his family fished, raised poultry and manufactured possum–skin rugs for sale.

Little is known about Tommy McRae’s early life but it is possible to gain a picture of his biography from information recorded by collectors of his drawings. The earliest documented collection of his drawings was in the early 1860s at which time he was described as working as a stockman for pastoralists in the upper Murray region (there are drawings of pastoralists and their homesteads included in his oeuvre). The evidence of his drawings clearly shows that he possessed an extensive knowledge of the traditional lifestyle of his people; his often repeated themes were hunting and fishing and ceremonial dances. Chinese farmers and musicians also appear in his drawings. One of his favourite subjects was the story of William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with Aboriginal people in Victoria for 33 years (the so–called ‘Wild White Man’).  In the 19th century his work was admired for its vitality, particularly in his vivid depictions of native animals, as well as for its information about traditional Aboriginal life.

McRae was described as ‘an astute financier’ and his drawings, bought by travellers in his region, provided an income for him and his family. He was a strict teetotaller but enjoyed a close relationship to his Wahgunyah neighbour, the vigneron Roderick Kilborn, who collected many of his drawings. McRae died in 1901 and was buried in the Carlyle Cemetery close to the edge of Lake Moodemere.    

Text by Andrew Sayers, author of Aboriginal artists of the nineteenth century (Oxford University Press, Melbourne in association with the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1994)