This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Tommy McRae (c.1835–1901), Aboriginal artist, whose Aboriginal names have been recorded as Yackaduna or Warra-euea, was probably from the Kwatkwat people, whose country stretched south of the Murray River near the junction of the Goulburn River in Victoria. He lived in or close to the Upper Murray all his life; one early twentieth-century report described him as 'a well-known identity throughout the country from Albury to Yarrawonga'. On the evidence of his art and at least one contemporary account, his early years were spent in a relatively undisturbed, traditional lifestyle. During his life he witnessed (and recorded in drawings) the establishment of pastoral settler society in his country.
Like many of his contemporaries, Tommy became a labourer for the pastoralists who opened up sheep stations in northern Victoria. He was also reputedly a stockman for Andrew Hume, who developed Brocklesby station at Corowa, New South Wales, between 1849 and 1857. The earliest written reference to McRae described him as 'an Australian Aboriginal of David Reid's station on the Upper Murray'. Until 1865 Reid's property was at Barnawartha, although he had earlier held other runs in the region, including Yackandandah. McRae's first drawings were collected between 1861 and 1864 at Barnawartha by the sculptor Theresa Walker. They were described as the work of 'Tommy Barnes'. The artist possibly adopted the name of an employer, the Wodonga pastoralist David Barnes.
At Wahgunyah in the 1860s McRae met Roderick Kilborn, a Canadian vigneron and telegraph-master, who later became a patron and protector when the artist settled on the shores of Lake Moodemere at Wahgunyah, probably in the early 1880s. The minutes of the Victorian Board for the Protection of the Aborigines for 1885 listed McRae, his wife Lily, four children and his brother and sister-in-law living at Lake Moodemere. During these years McRae made and sold books of drawings, raised poultry and fished for Murray cod. His family also made possum-skin rugs. He acquired a reputation for his pen-and-ink drawings, several books of which were collected by travellers who sought him out and paid him for his work. European settlers admired McRae, a dedicated non-drinker, for his industry; one described him as 'an astute financier' and he was able to buy a horse and buggy.
His books of drawings mostly recorded traditional Aboriginal life, such as ceremonies and scenes of hunting and fishing. He depicted individuals and animals (predominantly silhouetted) in landscapes composed of sparse trees and earth; the scenes were often accompanied by annotations. A number of sketches included squatters and Chinese. In several he chronicled the life of William Buckley, the 'wild white man'. McRae focussed on the subject's integration into Aboriginal society rather than on the aspect that so captivated European artists—Buckley's emergence from years of living with indigenous people. During the 1890s McRae continued to make and sell drawings. Between 1890 and 1897, however, all of his children were taken from him under government regulations and sent to various reserves in Victoria. He turned to Kilborn to prevent these seizures but without success.
In 1897 McRae and another Aboriginal man John Friday sued a photographer Thomas Cleary in Corowa court for failing to pay the £10 he had promised if he were allowed to photograph Aboriginal people at Lake Moodemere. Cleary claimed that the photographs had not turned out, and the case was dismissed. Nevertheless, the action was evidence of the artist's strength of character.
McRae died on 15 October 1901 and was buried in the Carlyle cemetery at Wahgunyah. His drawings are held in several public collections in Australia, including the National Museum of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the State libraries of Victoria and New South Wales and the Melbourne Museum.
Andrew Sayers, 'McRae, Tommy (1835–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcrae-tommy-13074/text23649, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 October 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005