Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Drawing our history

Tommy McRae, a Kwatkwat man, was born c.1836 near Wahgunyah on the eve of white settlement and Aboriginal dispossession. When young, he worked stock for settlers such as John Ford as well as doing seasonal work, fishing and hunting for family and trading purposes. Presumed to be the same stockman known in neighbouring parts as Yakaduna or Tommy Barnes, he also possessed a valuable artistic talent.

Observed drawing with a stick on the Murray mudflats, McRae was provided with pen, ink and paper by Wahgunyah postmaster Roderick Kilborn and other settlers, who were said to pay ten shillings for a filled sketchbook. McRae achieved some standing through his talent and his ability to make a partial living from it.

Working from memory or oral tradition, McRae executed his ink silhouettes lying propped on one elbow, drawing from the foot of his subject matter upwards, often arranging the narrative drawing in several tiers. Accomplished in draftsmanship and animation, he invested his compositions with great verve, drama and not a little humour, often lampooning an upstart squattocracy.

By the 1880s the McRae family had established camp at Lake Moodemere, periodically 'going bush' in a wagonette, but when it became an Aboriginal protection reserve in 1891, they moved across the river to avoid seizure of their children. Circumstances forced a return and the loss of the children, and McRae died within a few years.

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