Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

McCrae, Hugh Raymond (1876–1958)

by Norman Cowper and Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Hugh Raymond McCrae (1876-1958), by May Moore

Hugh Raymond McCrae (1876-1958), by May Moore

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3085063

Hugh Raymond McCrae (1876-1958), poet, was born on 4 October 1876 at Anchorfield, Hawthorn, Melbourne, second son of George Gordon McCrae, Scottish-born civil servant and poet, and his Tasmanian wife Augusta Helen, née Brown; Georgiana McCrae was his grandmother. He was educated at Hawthorn Grammar School and brought up in literary circles, which he later vividly portrayed in My Father and My Father's Friends (1935).

Briefly articled to an architect, McCrae was soon emboldened by his friends Lionel and Norman Lindsay to attempt to make a living by freelance writing and drawing: his first poem was published in the Bulletin in 1896. He lived a Bohemian existence and belonged to the artists' club, the Prehistoric Order of Cannibals.

At Christ Church, Hawthorn, on 4 May 1901 McCrae married Annie Geraldine (Nancy), daughter of William Anderson Adams, grazier. They went at once to Sydney and later shared a house at Lavender Bay with the Norman Lindsays; McCrae derived an exiguous income by contributing verses and drawings to the Bulletin, Lone Hand, Worker, Bookfellow, Trident and Clarion. He was encouraged to write poetry by the warm appreciation of Alfred George Stephens and Norman Lindsay, who later wrote that McCrae's 'personality and his poetry have both become interwoven through the years with my progression through art and life … his imagery was so much in key with mine that the urge to illustrate his poetry was irresistible'. He illustrated McCrae's first volume of poetry, Satyrs and Sunlight: Silvarum Libri (1909, 1911). Lionel Lindsay described him at this time: 'Tall, and apparently robust, impetuous in movement, nervous, and capable of intense happiness or suffering, there is in the set of Hugh McCrae's shapely head that bespeaks the man apart'. All his life McCrae stood aside from public ferment. Like Norman Lindsay's, his world was full of satyrs, centaurs, unicorns, fauns and nymphs. He drew on 'Greek myth, the medieval past particularly through the Scottish border ballad and the French middle ages', the eighteenth century and 'his own kind of chinoiserie or japonaiserie'.

In May 1914, 'broke and with no work', McCrae went to the United States of America, but nearly starved in New York. He managed to get work on the stage, playing minor parts in Androcles and the Lion and The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, both produced by Granville Barker, and in The Garden of Paradise. Returning to Melbourne McCrae played the lead in a silent film, The Life's Romance of Adam Lindsay Gordon (1916), acted in Shakespearian productions under Ian MacLaren and with Gregan McMahon's Repertory Theatre Company, and was employed as a decoder in the wartime Censor's Office.

A limited edition of Colombine, a book of McCrae's poems, was published by Art in Australia in 1920 and later that year by Angus & Robertson Ltd with eleven illustrations by N. Lindsay, who also published fifteen of McCrae's poems, with five of his own etchings, in a limited edition, Idyllia (1922). It was described by H. F. Chaplin as 'one of the most beautiful books ever produced in Australia'.

In 1922 McCrae returned to Sydney with his family where, except for a few years at Camden in the early 1930s, he lived for the rest of his life. The Du Poissey Anecdotes (1922), light-hearted annals written in an eighteenth century manner, illustrated by himself, is a dish relished by scholars with a fine taste for satire and the oddities of life, but not generally palatable. Before returning to Sydney McCrae had begun, and continued thereafter, the verse-drama, 'Joan of Arc', that he hoped to make his masterpiece. Three scenes entitled 'Orlando and Isabelle' were included in his collected poems, Satyrs and Sunlight, again illustrated and decorated by Lindsay and published in London by the Fanfrolico Press in 1928.

Unworldly and perennially hard up, McCrae received a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension of £52 a year from 1926, except for 1928 when with Ernest Watt he was joint editor (at £7 a week) of the New Triad: in 1941 his pension was increased to £2 a week. Otherwise he scraped a meagre living by contributing theatre criticisms, prose sketches, pen drawings and cartoons to Melbourne Punch, the Bulletin, Art in Australia, Home and other journals, and poems to the Sydney Morning Herald. His musical fantasy, The Ship of Heaven, with music by Alfred Hill, was produced by (Dame) Doris Fitton at the Independent Theatre on 7 October 1933 and published with his own illustrations in 1951. He edited and published his grandmother's diaries, as Georgiana's Journal, in 1934. In 1938 his fantastical poem, The Mimshi Maiden, appeared. R. G. Howarth made selections of McCrae's poems—Forests of Pan (1944), Voice of the Forest (1945), a collection of his prose writings, Story-Book Only (1948), and a posthumous volume, The Best Poems of Hugh McCrae (1961), which included the whole of the incomplete 'Joan of Arc'.

A man of great charm and attractiveness, enhanced by his classical good looks, McCrae was a rare human being with a 'Rabelaisian sense of humour'. He delighted his family and friends with innumerable letters and notes, written in beautiful calligraphy and adorned with marginal drawings of 'striking boldness and clarity of line'; they constitute a major part of his claims to fame. His prose was distinguished by fastidious choice of words, invention, humour and irony. A collection of his letters, edited by R. D. FitzGerald, was published posthumously in 1970.

McCrae's wife had died in 1943. At Mosman on 4 July 1946 he married Janet Le Brun, née Brown, widow of the composer Horace Keats, but the marriage was dissolved on 22 July 1948. Appointed O.B.E. in 1953, McCrae died at Wahroonga on 17 February 1958 and was cremated. His three daughters, Dorothea Huntly Cowper, Marjorie Francesca McWilliam and Georgiana Rose Morris, survived him. Intestate, he left only books, pictures and manuscripts, valued for probate at £133.

Admired as a poet in his generation, he was honoured in a special Hugh McCrae number by Art in Australia in 1931 and by Southerly (No.3, 1956) subtitled 'A birthday garland for Hugh McCrae'. In the words of Vivian Smith 'McCrae seemed to his admirers to stand like a peak above the tepid swamps of provincial versifying of his day'. His poetry was joyful, sensuous, full of colour and delightful verbal arabesques, but it showed no development, lacked coherent structure and was often incomplete. He shunned any kind of philosophy and earnestness about poetry or life; nevertheless he was one of the most influential Australian poets, notably on Kenneth Slessor and to a lesser extent on Douglas Stewart, Robert FitzGerald, Kenneth Mackenzie and A. D. Hope. Henry Mackenzie Green described him as 'a prince of lyricists' and many of his poems were set to music—by Arthur Benjamin, Frank Hutchens, Dorian le Gallienne, Alfred and Mirrie Hill and Keats. For Judith Wright, McCrae's 'real importance lies in those early years of the century, when he broke through the self-congratulatory parochialism of Australian literary life … The fact that he was a singer, not a thinker, freed the notion of poetry from the portentousness of the Nationalist and radical schools'.

A bust of McCrae by Charles Gilbert is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • T. I. Moore, Six Australian Poets (Melb, 1942)
  • N. Palmer, Fourteen Years (Melb, 1948)
  • G. Dutton (ed), The Literature of Australia (Melb, 1964)
  • George Mackaness, Bibliomania (Syd, 1965)
  • H. F. Chaplin (compiler), A McCrae Miscellany (Studies in Australian Bibliography, no 16, Syd, 1967)
  • N. Lindsay, My Mask (Syd, 1970)
  • K. Slessor, Bread and Wine (Syd, 1970)
  • L. Kramer (ed), Oxford History of Australian Literature (Melb, 1981)
  • Lone Hand, 1 Jan 1909
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 30, no 3, Sept 1971, p 353
  • Bulletin, 24 Apr 1924
  • Mackaness papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Commonwealth Literary Fund, minutes of meetings, A3753, item 72/2760, 2766 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dept of Defence correspondence files, 363/4/700 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Norman Cowper and Martha Rutledge, 'McCrae, Hugh Raymond (1876–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccrae-hugh-raymond-7327/text12713, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017