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McCrae, Georgiana Huntly (1804–1890)

by Norman Cowper

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Georgiana Huntly McCrae (1804-1890), self-portrait, 1824

Georgiana Huntly McCrae (1804-1890), self-portrait, 1824

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H89.181/3

Georgiana Huntly McCrae (1804-1890), artist and diarist, was born on 15 March 1804, in London, the natural daughter of George, marquis of Huntly, afterwards fifth Duke of Gordon ('Cock o' the North, ma Huntly braw'), and Jane, daughter of Ralph Graham of Rockmoor. She was educated in London at a convent school kept by noble French refugees from the Revolution and later at Claybrook House, Fulham, and the New Road Boarding School. She became an accomplished linguist; French was to her as a mother tongue and she was well grounded in Latin and Hebrew. She was a talented musician, but her strength was in pictorial art. She was taught drawing and painting by John Varley, John Glover and M. D. Serres, and miniature painting by Charles Hayter. She studied at the Royal Academy and in 1820-21 won medals for a miniature and a group of portraits in water-colours from the Society for Promoting Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

After leaving school she lived for about seven years at Gordon Castle, where she was acknowledged and treated as the duke's daughter. Her romance with 'Perico' (Peter Charles Gordon of Wardhouse, a 'Spanish' Gordon and a Roman Catholic) was frustrated by the duchess, a bigoted Protestant, whose professions of goodwill to her were scarcely supported by her actions. Soon afterwards Georgiana went to live in Edinburgh, with high hopes, encouraged by her father's friends, of making a good income from portrait painting. A list in her handwriting, headed 'painted for “fame”—and money', shows that fifteen portraits were executed at Gordon Castle in 1827-29 and thirty-five at Edinburgh in 1829-30.

On 25 September 1830 at Gordon Castle Georgiana married Andrew Murison McCrae, a writer to the signet and a kinsman of the Gordons. Long afterwards she wrote in her Journal against the date of this anniversary 'left my easel and changed my name'. In 1834 they moved to London. Andrew practised at Westminster until, influenced by (Sir) Thomas Mitchell, he decided to emigrate, and sailed in the Royal Saxon. He reached Sydney in March 1839 and next year went to Port Phillip, where his brother, Dr Farquhar McCrae, with his wife and two children, his mother and two sisters, had arrived from Scotland in June 1839. Andrew began to practise law in Melbourne in partnership with James Montgomery.

Georgiana and her children were to have gone with Andrew, but she 'took ague' after the birth of her fourth child and it was deemed unwise for her to risk the sea voyage then. She did not embark with her four sons until October 1840 and in the Argyle they landed at Port Phillip on 1 March 1841. The family first lived in a wooden house in Bourke Street. In February 1842 they moved to Mayfield, on the Yarra River (near Studley Park), designed by her and described as 'one of the first superior houses erected in the Colony'. In 1843 Andrew took up the Arthur's Seat run near Dromana, and there built a house in which the family lived from 1845 to 1851. Probably because of the turmoil arising from the gold discoveries, Andrew abandoned squatting to become police magistrate at Alberton (Gippsland), then at Barrow's Inn, Hepburn, Creswick, and finally for seventeen years at Kilmore, where he was also warden for the goldfields, deputy-sheriff and commissioner of crown lands. He retired in 1866 and died in 1874. Georgiana did not accompany him in all these moves but lived with her children in Melbourne. She died on 24 May 1890 at Hawthorn. Of her seven surviving children, the eldest, George Gordon, was a writer and the friend of writers, and the youngest son, Farquhar Peregrine, became inspector of the Bank of Australasia.

Georgiana does not seem to have painted many portraits after she came to Australia. On 8 February 1845 she wrote in her Journal: 'There is a living to be had here through my art of miniature painting, for which I have several orders in hand; but dare not oppose the family wishes that “money must not be made in that way”!' The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in Melbourne has a fine oil painting of Dr Farquhar McCrae painted by her. At Mayfield and Arthur's Seat she did a large number of water-colours and drawings, many of which are in the possession of her descendants as well as some of her finest miniatures. She was a woman of strong character, exceptional education, wit, charm and cultivated taste, and was a significant figure in the early days of settlement in Victoria. It was said that her skill in managing the Aboriginals at Arthur's Seat was acknowledged by other runholders; she was as useful as a drover among cattle and horses, and was renowned as a 'medicine woman'. Mayfield and the homestead at Arthur's Seat were resorted to by people with literary and artistic leanings, and her visitors included Bishop William Grant Broughton, William Charles Wentworth, Benjamin Boyd, 'Orion' Horne, Henry Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Richard Birnie, Sir Oswald Brierly, Nicholas Chevalier, and Sir John Franklin. She was a close friend of Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe and his wife. According to an obituary by Alexander Sutherland, 'It was largely due to the influence of such women as Mrs McCrae that ideas of refinement and principles of taste were kept alive during the “dark ages” of our colonial history'.

In an English notebook Georgiana left recollections of her childhood and adolescence, a version of which was published by her grandson Hugh McCrae in several issues of Southerly in 1946-47. She kept journals during much of her life, which she rewrote in later years. One is known to have been destroyed by George Gordon McCrae under a promise which she had extracted from him. Another, covering the years 1838-48, was edited by Hugh McCrae and published in 1934 with the title Georgiana's Journal, and its illustrations included reproductions of her portraits and sketches.

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Citation details

Norman Cowper, 'McCrae, Georgiana Huntly (1804–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccrae-georgiana-huntly-2392/text3157, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Georgiana Huntly McCrae (1804-1890), self-portrait, 1824

Georgiana Huntly McCrae (1804-1890), self-portrait, 1824

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H89.181/3