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Tommy McRae

Tommy McRae

1830 - 1901


Nineteenth century artist Tommy McRae lived and worked along Victoria’s upper Murray River area during the disruption and ultimate end of traditional tribal life amongst the Aboriginal people of South-Eastern Australia. European settlers, gold-diggers and pastoralists increasingly took over their traditional hunting grounds and homelands. Like many of his people, McRae found a livelihood by working for the new landowners as a stockman and drover. It was not until he was in his fifties and towards the end of this physically demanding work life that he began to draw consistently. After being noticed and collected by Theresa Walker (Mrs. G.H. Poole), the artist and wife of a local landowner, Tommy’s naturalistic, figurative drawings were shown to other ‘society whites’. The steady flow of interest and paid commissions that followed allowed McRae to set up an independent camp for himself and family on the shores of Lake Moodemere, a large freshwater lake, rich in plant and animal life and of ceremonial importance to his people. Most of his distinctive pen and ink drawings were made during the two decades of his life there, looking back over his memories and giving a unique, often witty, viewpoint upon a changing world.  The true artistic and historical significance of McRae has only emerged relatively recently. Although he was well known within his locale and according to accounts, cut quite a figure in the rural landscape; driving into town in a horse-drawn buggy and attending race meetings in full gentlemanly attire, McRae’s status was undermined by prevailing racial prejudices of the time. European colonialists assumed their superiority in all ways and this included the area of artistic expression. Traditional Aboriginal art, like other abstract and geometrical art forms, was considered primitive, only an early step towards the development of full figurative representation that reached its zenith in the realism of European art. Although it often included figurative motifs and a strongly developed linear aspect, Aboriginal art was seen as a curiosity or collected as anthropological evidence. The rare few names that have emerged from this obscuring viewpoint were considered, at the time, to be imitative and to have simply responded well to the European influence. They were deserving of a certain amount of appreciation but they could never become ‘famous’ (Cooper 1994). This negating attitude was evident in the accreditation to ‘a native artist’ of McRae’s drawings that appeared in several books and exhibitions of the time. When asked by an interested reviewer for more details as to the unnamed artist who had illustrated her Australian Legendary Tales 1896, author Kate Langloh Parker named McRae, describing him as 'a clever black' whose art 'has a look of life mine never has' (cited in Sayers 1994: 50). It is this ‘look of life’ that distinguishes McRae’s drawings. His images tell a story in a captivating and convincing manner, his silhouette-like figures infused with an animated spirit. He transports his audience to see things afresh, like all great works of art, peeling back the layers of habit and expectation with a sparse yet strikingly expressive use of line. McRae focuses on three main subject areas: scenes from traditional Aboriginal life (such as hunting and ceremony), the new occupiers (particularly the proprietorial squatter in top hat and riding boots) and the mythic story of ‘the wild white man’ (William Buckley, who escaped from a convict ship in 1803). McRae’s landscape settings are brief, one or two trees, with singular birds, fish or animals, so superbly rendered that they can be identified as to specific species. McRae’s keen sense of observation underlies his masterful talent. In corroborees, lines of dancers cross the page, their bent legs interlocking in a rhythmic pattern, each dancer carefully delineated with particular patterns or possibly a characterizing tribal adornment; bunched leaves tied to their lower legs or feathered head-dresses for example (Sayers 1994: 33). The moment before capture is a favourite hunting tale, with intently poised men, sometimes holding a bush camouflage before them, their spears about to fly at an unsuspecting kangaroo, emu or fish. Although ritual-like fighting duels provide another popular subject, explicit racial conflict is never present; the self-satisfaction of the new land-owner is conveyed with wry amusement or Chinese gold-diggers are chased away in a spirited sketch of comic disarray. McRae’s rendition of the William Buckley story focuses on two moments; Buckley being found by Aboriginal people and his full participation in tribal life. The saying ‘jump up white man’ sprang from a rumoured Aboriginal belief that white people were souls returned from the dead. A belief, Buckley later told his biographer John Morgan (1852), that was responsible for his full acceptance by them, though in retrospect the tale really marks the beginning of the white incursion and the gradual displacement of the Indigenous culture. McRae was undeterred by the European renditions of the Buckley tale that focused upon the convict’s eventual discovery, pardon and return to white society. As in all his artworks, McRae’s point of view is distinctly his own, revealing the strong sense of identity that makes his drawings all the more unique.         McRae found a patron on the nearby property owned by Roderick Kilborn, who collected his drawings and regularly supplied him with new inks and sketchbooks. Kilborn also organized commissions, including a gift to the governor that generated much interest. McRae was highly regarded and well patronised. Yet sadly, this did not prevent his children from being removed according to the laws of the time, despite his concerted appeals to powerful friends. When he wished to buy a house for his family with his well-earned funds; the Board for the Protection of Aborigines promptly dismissed his request. After his death, many of McRae’s drawings were collected and housed in museum archives. They were considered to be examples of ‘the dawn of art’ or an historical record of nineteenth century life, largely inaccessible to the general or art-loving public. However, this situation changed during the 1970’s when new generations of Aboriginal artists sought out their predecessors with a will to reclaim Aboriginal history and identity. Although it is clear that his naturalistic style developed in some part as a response to European demand, McRae’s vantage point upon an important era in Australia’s history is sincere and the stamp of his own personality is remarkably distinct. During the 1980’s and 1990’s McRae’s drawings were included in major touring exhibitions and as Sayers concludes in his definitive study, McRae is now acknowledged as a significant figure in the history of Australian visual culture.  Like other past Aboriginal masters (including Albert Namatjira of the Hermannsburg School and William Barak, also of Southeast Victoria), McRae’s artistic practice is now acknowledged as 'a creative choice within a culture of extraordinary complexity' (Sayers 1994: 88). The fragility of these now rare works enhances their Ingenious beauty.     
Despite a number of authoritative texts on the artist written in 1994, Tommy McRae’s historical and artistic significance has only been recognized relatively recently by those outside of a small number of museum professionals. The first time anything by this artist was offered at public sale was in 1988 when Sotheby’s put up a small quarto sized sketchbook containing 30 marbled cardboard pages depicting the antics of colonists and the tribal and hunting activities of the Aborigines of Wahgunyah, Corowa, and the Murray Basin area of New South Wales and Northern Victoria. Estimated at $15,000-18,000 they were unable to garner enough interest to attract a buyer and it was not until Christies offered two sketchbooks joined together and containing 22 images in 1994 that the artist’s first successful sale was recorded. The sketchbooks sold for $43,700, more than twice the high estimate and this sale stood as the artist’s record throughout the following decade. It is still the fourth highest sale recorded to date. Since then, Sotheby’s have dominated the artist’s sales having sold 14 of the 18 successful offerings for a total value of $409,375. In 2008 Sotheby’s just failed to eclipse the $48,800 paid for the small ink on paper War Dance 1900, sold at Joel Fine Art in June (Lot 3), with Hunting Figures in their November auction (Lot 26). However these two sales and another hunting scene which achieved $40,800 resulted in the artist’s career clearance rate jumping from 59% to 67% and his art market rating improving by no less than 11% in a single year. In 2012 all three works that were offfered sold for an average price of $42,800. Included was the artist's then record price of $78,000. The work, Buckley's Escape was created during the 1890s and featured a stark black narrative in four parts on a single sheet of white paper. The work sold at Deutscher and Hackett while carrying a presale estimate of $60,000-80,000. 2013 pushed aside the previous year as his best yet. Almost tripling his previous record, Sketchbook 1881, which included 14 individual drawings, sold for $228,000 through Deutscher and Hackett (Lot 21). Returning from the Chase (circa 1890) almost doubled its $40,000 presale estimate, fetching 79,300 just two months later, pushing what was only recently his highest selling work to the number 3 in his top ten. Notable amongst those lots that failed to sell when originally offered is the only object credited to the artist, an engraved bellows. Passed in when first offered at Sotheby’s in July 2007 (Lot 2) it carried the same $5,000-8,000 estimate five months later at Charles Leski in Melbourne and sold this time for $8,338 (Lot 98). Interestingly a particularly engaging image One of the Murray River Tribe’s War Dance (Before the Fight) c.1890s first offered at Christies in August 2004 (Lot 92) failed to find a buyer when offered with a presale estimate of $18,000-25,000 but achieved $20,400 the following year in Sotheby’s July sale (lot 6) when estimated at a slightly lower $14,000-18,000. In 2008, four drawings sold for an average price of $40,195, a good $12,000 above the artist’s average. It certainly makes those three sketchbooks containing more than 20 images each that have been offered over the past 20 years look remarkably good investments and, although Tommy's ranking amongst all artists of the movement did not improve as a result, his 2008 sales place him within striking distance of no less than five of the movements most prominent artist’s should they continue on this trajectory over the next decade. There was a notable absence of works offered in 2009 in spite of the previous year's success.  Perhaps also the re-offfering of Retuning from the Chase c1890 at Detscher and Hackett in 2010 was a little premature.  Originally sold for an impressive $31,200 just three years previously its ambitious $60,000-80,000 presale estimate proved just too high on the night.  Tommy McRae achieved notoriety at the very dawn of the 20th century. His works are exceedingly rare, and good examples appear at auction infrequently. Only one has been uncovered since 2014. It sold at the Cooee Art MarketPlace for $43,700 in June 2018. Works by McRae have only ever appeared at auction on 33 occasions and a good many of these were resales. Expect tremendous interest whenever the ocasional fresh work appears.

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