This talk was delivered by Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, as a special presentation for NAIDOC Week 2016. As the talk was delivered in the Treasures Gallery and references specific collection material, we wish to encourage you to follow the links embedded thorughout the text to view the works discussed.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of this land on which we meet. I thank their elders, past and present, for this land that we are now privileged to call home and I would like to extend my respect to the Aboriginal people and colleagues who are present today.
As we share our knowledge through events such as this or through our research practices within the Library and in the wider community we must also pay respect to the knowledge embedded forever within the Aboriginal Custodianship of Country.
Thinking about how to curate the content for the Treasures Gallery before we opened almost 5 years ago was certainly a challenge, but the staff of the Exhibitions Branch scoped what must be included and then decided on a founding principle to guide the concept for the gallery and also the contract exhibition designers. The Library’s Mabo Case manuscripts, Papers of Edward Koiki Mabo, 1943 - 1992, record the historic campaign by the visionary, Edward Koiki Mabo (1936-1992) and his co-appellants in the High Court of Australia to establish recognition of principles of Indigenous land tenure. As UNESCO noted in 2001, when the collection was historically inscribed upon the Memory of the World Register, ‘The significance of the Mabo Case lies in it being an extremely rare instance in world history of pre-existing tribal law being formally recognised as superior to fundamental law of the ‘invading’ culture, regardless of the economic and political implications’. Although Mabo sadly did not live to see it, the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ confirmed by James Cook when he took possession of the east coast in August 1770 was historically overturned. Simultaneously, and balancing this initiative, UNESCO also inscribed Cook’s Endeavour journal on the register. Symbolically the journal, in Cook’s handwriting, of his first voyage of exploration in the Pacific on the Endeavour in 1768-71 covers the first European charting of the east coast of Australia and the first circumnavigation of New Zealand. The journal is arguably the key document foreshadowing British colonisation of Australia - which began with the convicts transported in 1788. Indigenous Australians may well see the document as the beginning of dispossession and as a harbinger of decades of suffering and hardship. Others may see it as the thoughtful recording of the ‘Remarkable Occurrences’ Cook experienced as he voyaged widely, met Indigenous peoples, mapped, then almost failed to navigate the Barrier Reef.
After his initial skirmish at Botany Bay, Cook’s opinions of Aboriginal people changed as he spent weeks at Endeavour River getting to know them and he seemed to almost covet their carefree, democratic lives. Cook’s words recorded in his journal that the Natives were in ‘no ways inclinable to cruelty’ and, more famously,
From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb'd by the Inequality of Condition.
Observations, it should be noted, that were edited out of his official account. Both perspectives on Cook have merit, and both need to be considered when making value judgements. Both Cook and Mabo’s manuscripts, singularly precious items in the Library’s collection, were singled out for inclusion in Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries in 2001 to note the UNESCO honour and to highlight, in an international context, emerging cross-cultural comprehension. Both this exhibition and, more recently, the Treasures Gallery celebrate the unique and powerful role played by libraries in collecting and preserving the history and culture of the world.
The central idea to the display in the Treasures Gallery, informed by the UNESCO 2001 decision, was to make these manuscript items the focal point of the visitor experience. Not only were they considered amongst the most significant items to be displayed but they would be seen as such in the layout and design of the gallery. The showcases were designed in such a way as to stand out from the others in the space and they were positioned to act as the central spine to the gallery display. Visitors to the Treasures Gallery have the unique experience of being able to view, in documentary form, in the one room, two remarkable stories which fundamentally changed Australia.
The Cook and Mabo stories are then, the Treasures Gallery’s axis points around which all other content can be seen and given context.
I have always been very conscious of the need to represent Indigenous stories and voices as much as possible in the Treasures Gallery since its opening in late 2011.
The desire to show objects created by Indigenous people as well as the many, many objects depicting or describing them has been a guiding principle for me and for the team here. Treasured objects made by Aboriginal people which have been displayed here in the gallery include:
- William Monop’s colourful sketchbook produced for Daisy Bates in 1907.
- Bennelong’s 1796 letter to his friends the Philips in England - the first piece of writing by an indigenous Australian.
- Mickey of Ulladulla’s beautiful watercolours of a fishing scene and a corroboree.
- The two tiny and enigmatic 19th century drawings signed ‘Billy Jones, a half caste’ which I found in the NK collection and speculated about whether they could possibly be by the circus performer Billy Jones, also known as, Little Nuggett.
- The incredibly rare quilt made by Noongar girls in the Swan River settlement in the 1840s.
- or the contemporary Indigenous artist Gordon Bennett’s iconic Note to Basquiat painting.
We have also shown important works by amateur and professional artists depicting Aboriginal people and their lives at the point of interaction with European settlement. These images, accounts or artefacts have always been included as part of the rich and complex story of our contested and difficult past.
To give some memorable examples:
- The very early post-settlement watercolours by the Port Jackson Painter which are arguably the first realistic portraits of Indigenous Australians.
- A number of travel artist Augustus Earle’s revealing works have been included, especially his celebrated oil portrait of Bungaree and also his watercolour portrait of Desmond painted up for a corroboree, which was shown in the Nan Kivell portraits exhibition last year.
- William Westall’s early watercolours, the earliest known depictions of Indigenous rock art, have also been featured here in the past displays.
- Von Guerard’s painting Natives chasing game.
- Lycett’s extraordinary album of watercolours documenting the lives of the Awabakal people.
- The Corroboree painting attributed to John Glover.
- Benjamin Duterrau’s etched portrait of Truganini.
- Important early Alexander Schramm paintings and prints, depicting life on the frontier in South Australia in the 1850s.
We have also crossed the continent and presented the works of William John Huggins, the earliest depictions of meeting Indigenous people in the Swan River Colony, later Western Australia.
However, today I’m here to talk about what’s in the gallery now not what was here in the past. And if you’ve visited over the past months you will have noticed that I have focused part of the display on the colonial art of South Australia and the depiction of Indigenous people there from settlement in 1836.
I want to briefly look at the following images and stories here today as part of our NAIDOC week program. First I will deal with Governor Arthur’s Proclamation to the natives. Then I will cover the two very early images of Collins Street, Melbourne, one, the first printed image of that city. I also want to speak to the two very fine watercolours of young men by an unknown artist and the painting adjacent to them by John Crossland of catechist Samuel Kandwillan of the Poonindie Mission Institution and his colleague Nannultera who is missing from our display. And, finally, I will speak about the recently acquired Lucas Sketchbook created by the extraordinary draftsman and recorder of Aboriginal life and culture, Tommy McRae.
During the seemingly endless First World War centenary events it seems timely to look at an artefact from a lesser-known and overlooked conflict, much closer to home. This robust and enigmatic object is a survivor. It evokes the period of warfare existing in Van Diemen’s Land between the black and white populations in the 1820s. Is it a symbolically loaded piece of propaganda or the remnant of a well-meant gesture of conciliation? The truth is complex, winding intricately through both of these assertions.
The 1st of November 1828 marked the proclamation of martial law by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur. This followed escalating violence between the opposed communities, who had vastly different means of resolving disagreements. The settlers, generally a mixed lot of convicts and sheep farmers, had guns and the government on their side. The Palawa had courage, stealth and patience but were being steadily killed in the frontier conflict. Their lands were being usurped, food sources blocked and families broken up. Previous proclamations by Arthur attempted to deal with the bloodshed and lawlessness but instead enabled the white population to exterminate the original inhabitants. The colonial authorities wanted to get the Palawa out of the way, to ban them from settled land, clearing areas for productive farming. The Palawa could not possibly understand the significance of the proclamations—they spoke no English. How would they hear of new government restrictions on their use of their lands?
Surveyor-General George Frankland proposed an ingenious, if naive solution. Inspired, he said, by Palawa drawings on the bark of trees, Frankland sketched pictograms, which he hoped they might understand. How he imagined Palawa people would decipher the proclamations is not recorded. He wrote to Arthur:
I have endeavoured to represent in a manner as simple and as well adapted to their supposed idea, as possible, the actual state of things (or rather the origin of the present state) and the desired termination of the hostility.
Similar in style to later comic strip illustrations, these images were anything but comic. With deadly serious intent, the image of Aboriginal people and Europeans living in harmony in the top register—nursing each other’s babies, their children holding hands—presents a utopia of assimilation, presumably designed to suggest that once transformed, the original Tasmanians could live alongside their white neighbours in peace.
The iconography and symbolism of the Palawa ‘chief’ in a headdress shaking hands with the Lieutenant-Governor is complex, but it can be read as surrender or conciliation witnessed by the King’s representative, his soldiers and a settler. The final two registers of the board provide a bloodthirsty account of the supposedly equal justice meted out on the frontier. The idea of a European person being hanged for murdering an Aboriginal Australian was fanciful, and the first such occurrence was not to be for another decade and then only on the mainland. This was in relation to the Myall Creek massacre in New South Wales in 1838.
Created in 1830 as a run of 100 panels, Frankland’s drawing was stencilled onto the painted wooden boards to facilitate easy copying. The painters are unknown. Like the people being hanged in the illustration, the wooden panels were also created to be fastened onto trees. What the Palawa made of them is not recorded.
Only seven known proclamation boards exist in museum collections in Australia and overseas. [In Harvard’s Peabody Museum, Museum Anthropology at Cambridge UK, SLNSW, QVMAG, TMAG, MoV, NLA] They were also produced later as lithographic prints, with a narrative beneath the scenes and Governor Davey, Arthur’s predecessor, wrongly named as the author. The Library’s painted board is said to have been purchased in Hobart in 1936 for £10 from John Watt Beattie, the Scottish-born photographer and antiquarian. However, he died in 1930 so it seems we may have purchased it from his family. The Library also holds what appears to be the original watercolour artwork prepared for the misnamed lithograph and some of the prints as well.
The proclamation board was displayed until very recently alongside a copy of the 1830 Hobart Almanac, which outlines Governor Arthur’s various proclamations. The section on ‘Aborigines’ ended with the following words: 'But the actual use of arms is not to be resorted to, if less violent means will avail, and bloodshed is to be checked as much as possible.'By this stage of the conflict most of the killing had already been done.
I think this board, a potent symbol of frontier conflict, of miscommunication and of colonial propaganda should stay on permanent display here as a reminder to people of the battles fought, not just in Tasmania, but all over this country and which continued for another century.
Works with a possible Tasmanian connection
Images of Collins Street, Town of Melbourne, New South Wales, from 1839 and 1840
Looking at these works is a kind of compare and contrast test as inflicted on Fine Art students at University. Here we have two similar images which are subtly different, both depict Aboriginal people surveying their lands in the early township of Melbourne. Take the time to spot the differences.
Named for the British prime minister in 1837, Melbourne was founded two years earlier in rather speculative circumstances. From settlement it had been a province of New South Wales and administered from Sydney. From 1837 to 1842 the European population of Port Phillip swelled from 1,000 to 20,000 and the expansion of sheep grazing and the occupation of land by squatters was exponential. James Boyce in his book 1835 about the founding of Melbourne notes that the Aboriginal people ‘were dispossessed of a territory larger than England in just five years.’ Frontier violence was endemic and, not unlike the situation in Tasmania which I mentioned earlier, only one European was convicted of shooting an Aboriginal in the Port Philip district between 1835 and 1850. He was one John Stokell, an overseer on a property – he served only two months gaol time.
However, the dispossession of Aboriginal people in Port Philip had the perhaps unexpected effect of increasing the number of Aboriginal refugees moving into Melbourne. Their visibility on the streets increased in the growing township; in March 1837 it was reported that between 200 and 300 Aboriginal men women and children were meeting in the town. The Aboriginal mission established on the southern side of the Yarra in the hope, it was said, of amalgamating ‘the two races’ soon failed and became a site of violence. This much-commented -upon Aboriginal presence can be clearly seen here in these two images. Though I think the base image was probably constructed to suggest that the Yuen people are witnesses to their land being appropriated and that they will walk out of the frame - in time. Of course they didn’t, despite the difficulties of surviving suffering hunger and illness. George Augustus Robinson arrived from Tasmania as Chief Protector of Aborigines in 1839 and was shocked at what he saw - he declared, ‘This is a disgrace to humanity.’ Governor La Trobe was appointed as Superintendent and he quickly took charge to evict the urban Aboriginal population to Narre Warren. Despite this, Aboriginal people continued to come into Melbourne and were prepared to resist the government’s orders to leave, sadly they didn’t have much choice. By 1851, ten years after these images were crafted the city had pushed Aboriginal people to the margins, most had died and long term survival was to depend on the sanctuary of Coranderrk and other small reserves.
The naive watercolour of Collins Street which we see here was speculatively attributed to ‘W Knight’ by collector Rex Nan Kivell, who bought it in London in 1946. His attribution was based on the fact that a very similar lithograph from 1840 exists – he writes this in his spidery hand on the mount for the watercolour – the print is sitting beside it.
The lithograph, perhaps the earliest published view of Melbourne, is by Elisha Noyce and it credits 'W. Knight' as the original painter. A William Knight, a very successful merchant and watercolourist arrived in Hobart from London in 1827, having earlier visited to investigate establishing a business venture there. He stayed, though made a variety of voyages, and documented his travels and surroundings in watercolour. Knight had his portrait taken at least twice in Hobart by leading artists, once by Thomas Bock and also by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. He also exhibited 7 watercolours in the 1846 Hobart Town Exhibition of Paintings, Engravings, and Watercolour Drawings. At this stage it is not known how or when Knight, came to visit Melbourne and presumably record this view from an elevated position on Collins Street looking to the west.
Comparing these works raises some questions or quandaries. It appears they were produced a year apart; however, the variation between the images is hard to account for. In the foreground of the lithograph, there is a pig, and Noyce also adds sheep walking down Collins Street. The London printer J. Cross has added his initials to the sack on the cart. Noyce’s view is, overall, a more detailed and finished image of the budding city capturing its simple dwellings; it cannot have been taken from the accompanying, supposedly earlier, watercolour. Both images are bisected by the wide and busy promenade of Collins Street, Melbourne’s most famous thoroughfare. It was named after Lieut.-Governor David Collins, who was thwarted in his attempt to settle the area in 1803 and went on to found Hobart. These images are revealing views of Melbourne’s earliest days and we witness a burgeoning township, pre-gold rush and before separation from NSW. Boats connecting Melbourne to the wider world can be seen moored on the Yarra. The Yuen family group look on, and their presence here tranquilly surveying the scene records their presence still upon their lands.
Anonymous faces from the past
There are two compelling watercolour portraits of two young men from the Rex Nan Kivell Collection here on display. They are by an unknown artist. Sometimes, having found such works, it is relatively easy to recognise the hand of the artist who created them. Certain stylistic tendencies or signature elements might be recognised, and a safe attribution to a certain artist is possible. In this case, the strength of these images and the resolution in the way they are presented is both attractive and mystifying. Given the likely period when they were painted, probably the 1840s or 1850s, it is much easier to say who they were not painted by, than to identify the artist. They are not by, for example S.T. Gill, John Skinner Prout, William Strutt, Charles Rodius, George French Angas, Robert Dowling, Thomas Woolner, the list goes on. The first portrait is perhaps of a non-Aboriginal man and carries a pencil inscription ‘Natuwan—Morniny.’ Natuwan may be an Indian word, which hints that the man may be from the subcontinent. The man in the second portrait is clearly Aboriginal, and could be from the Lower Murray or Lakes people of South Australia. What were the circumstances of their depiction? Were they sailors perhaps crewing together on some vessel and in their travels they encountered the talented painter who has crafted these watercolours so beautifully? It is hoped that further research may reveal more information and if you have any thoughts please share them with me today.
Portraits of Samuel Kandwillan and Nannultera by John Crossland from the Nan Kivell collection
Here we can see the catechist Samuel Kandwillan from the Poonindie Native Training Institute, a mission farm established by Adelaide’s Bishop Augustus Short and his offsider Mathew Blagden Hale in 1850. (The catechist was responsible in the missionary’s absence for the spiritual welfare of the congregation.) In the words of the Bishop, Poonindie was to be ‘A Christian village of South Australian Natives, reclaimed from barbarism, trained to the duties of social Christian life and walking in the fear of God.’ High ambitions which, while well meant at one level, paid absolutely no heed to the desires of the so called ‘natives’ nor acknowledging what they had lost or been forced to give up. It is interesting to note that Bishop Short was known to comment to complaining clergymen who thought they were doing it tough in the colony – ‘You ought to have been a fag at Westminster.’ It says a lot about him and his background and attitudes.
Depicted as though ready to read a service, with Bible in hand, Crossland’s image is of a strong, dignified man whose quiet sophistication impressed Bishop Short. This and the painting of the younger cricketer Nannultera – are both from the NK collection and the latter is on loan to the National Gallery of Australia. Both were commissioned by Hale in 1853 from the leading SA colonial portraitist John Crossland when the two men visited Adelaide for a cricket match at St Peter’s School.
"Human guinea pigs in a cross cultural-experiment" – Short and Hale wanted Aboriginal people to accept Christ to be ‘brought out of darkness into light, and from the power of Satan unto god’ - and ultimately to become ‘the nucleus of the native church.’ The avowed idea animating the mission was to save these young vulnerable Aboriginal men and women from ‘the ravages of disease and infamy’. The principles of the Poonindie institution were isolation, industrial education and schooling, marriage, separate dwellings, work and wages and, if they were good, cricket, but only for the boys. Bishop Short wrote in 1872 after witnessing a cricket match in which a Poonidie team played that: ‘the Anglican aristocracy of England and the ‘noble savage’ who ran wild in the Australian woods are linked together in one brotherhood of blood moved by the same passions, desires and affections.’
Kandwillan had originally attended the Adelaide School for Aborigines. He had learned to read and write well and went to the St John’s Church Sunday School in east Adelaide. He was said to be a quiet and conscientious student.
I will quickly make a digression at this point to the 1846 drawing you can see here by S.T. Gill of St John’s Church, East Terrace, in Adelaide. It is this church that Samuel Kandwillan visited to attend Sunday School before he went to Poonindie, and Bishop Short was its pastor. While looking through the Rex Nan Kivell collection online late last year, I found this attractive oil painting which intrigued me. Titled by the collector as ‘An Aboriginal Mission’ and with a loose date of c.1860 I went to visit it. It was better ‘in the flesh’ and, curiously, was painted on metal sheet and somehow rang a bell. It displayed a miniaturist’s interest in a new landscape. I first explored Nan Kivell’s idea that it perhaps depicted an Aboriginal mission, as there are a number of aboriginal people in the scene and a distinctive church in the background. I thought originally that it might be the Poonindie Aboriginal mission on the Eyre Peninsula and could relate to the two portraits of Kandwillan and Nannultera. In an article by noted historian John Tregenza, which examined and attributed Crossland’s portraits, I found S.T. Gill’s image of St John’s Church, also held in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection. It was opened for worship in October 1841, and was known as ‘St John’s in the Wilderness’ because of its seemingly remote location in the earliest days of Adelaide’s settlement. As you can see the church was identical to the one seen sitting, backgrounded by the Mount Lofty Ranges, in this oil painting. This was a breakthrough. So, who could have painted this lovely small oil painting, in Adelaide, on metal and in the 1840s, when it had the liveliest artistic scene in all the colonies? The painting featured the distinctive ‘crossed’ trees which I had seen in Martha Berkeley’s works in the exhibition when I worked at the Art Gallery of SA 20 years earlier and it was painted on sheet metal as she did. I thought perhaps Martha was an exciting possibility. After contacting Jane Hylton a colleague who is the expert on Martha Berkeley it seemed clear that our work is the only known landscape in oils by perhaps Australia’s most overlooked colonial painter. And here it is now displayed alongside a wax medallion sculpture of Bishop Broughton by her sister Theresa Walker who emigrated to South Australia with her. Remember that name as it will come up again later in this tour. Now back to the Crossland portraits.
Kandwillan was originally employed as general labourer at Poonindie and his wife, Tandatko, was employed as a cook. They had been originally with Hale on Boston Island near Port Lincoln prior to Poonindie’s establishment and both were among the 11 foundation members there. The church’s arranged marriages were of course against traditional law and they caused numerous problems. For example, there was tension between Kandwillan and his wife Tandatko. Kandwillan, the highly regarded student, at one stage was reported by Tandatko to Hale for some very serious infraction, which meant he was to be permanently barred from the community. In his diary Hale described Kandwillan’s tearful attempted return with other members of the Poonindie community and Hale himself in tears. Hale, after witnessing the affect his exclusion was having on the other young men and seeing Tandatko inconsolable, Kandwillan was readmitted to Poonindie. Also the mortality rate at Poonindie in its first ten years was very high (mainly lung complaints). Tandatko died in 1856 and Kandwillan was remarried to a woman named Maria who died two years later. Kandwillan as catechist went on to read the prayers and lessons in the Chapel at St Thomas’s at Port Lincoln with ‘so much propriety’ and was complimented by Short.
Kandwillan died at Poonindie in 1860 probably during a flu outbreak. He was much mourned by both the Poonindie Aborigines and by the religious fraternity.
Not much is known of Nannultera but, as a boy, he lived early on with William Elder’s family. William was one of the prosperous Elder Family in Adelaide and Nannultera also worked for his brother George and was no. 26 on Hale’s mission list in December 1851. Bishop Short was obsessed with cricket and piety. It is perhaps no surprise then that the two portraits commissioned by his close associate Hale featured the young catechist and the talented batsman, two exemplars of what Christianity could supposedly achieve in the Antipodes. The presentation of the two young men, well turned out and looking respectable, exemplified Bishop Short’s idea that ‘clothes maketh the man’ – the idea that an appropriate outward appearance signalled a successful conversion to Christianity and an appropriate spiritual life was symbolised by their new attire.
The Poonidie Aboriginal cricket teams were strong and beat local Port Lincoln teams. Short wrote after observing a match, ‘the perfect good humour which prevailed throughout the games; no ill-temper shown, or angry appeals to the umpire, as is generally the case in a match of Whites.’ Sadly, at this point, the fate of Nannultera the cricketer, is unknown.
Hale went on to become bishop of Perth in 1856 and later Brisbane. He kept numerous photographs which he had commissioned of his Poonindie brethren, including possibly Kandwillan until the end along, it would seem, with these important and revealing portraits of two ‘stars’ of the Poonindie mission.
Tommy McRae’s (c.1830-1901) Sketchbook of Aboriginal daily life scenes, Wahgunyah Region, Victoria, 1881
Tommy McRae was a widely recognised figure about whom a lot is on the record thanks to Andrew Sayers who wrote the groundbreaking volume Australian Aboriginal artists of the 19th century, nowmore than 20 years ago. Andrew’s work and auction catalogue notes from Carol Cooper from the NMA and a report by Nicki Mackay-Sim, Curator of Pictures have assisted greatly in preparing this part of my talk.
Sayers observes that Tommy McRae was the most prolific aboriginal artist from S.E. Australia in the 19th century. He was, he wrote, an Aboriginal man who ‘had to negotiate and adapt to new circumstances’. Unlike Kandwillan or Nannultera about whom we do not know a great deal Tommy McRae’s life is well documented.
The artist we know usually as Tommy McRae was known by a number of names with variant spellings of McCrae. He was also known as Tommy Barnes. His Indigenous name was Yakanduna or Warra-uea and he is thought to be a Kwat Kwat clan member which is part of the larger Wiradjuri nation. He was born and lived his life in the upper Murray area around Wahgunya and Corowa which are on the border between New South Wales and Victoria.
The period he lived through from his birth, around 1830, to his death in 1901, was marked by remarkable changes. First, the incursions of the pastoral industry. Then the gold rushes in the 1850s. Then the speculators punting on vineyards or riverboats. We know that in the 1860s Tommy McRae worked as a stockman on various properties – on Barnawatha Station and also Brocklesby Station. We also know that he sometimes travelled between the upper Murray area where he lived and worked and Melbourne. He had family at the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. He seems to have lived quietly adapting to the changes around him while maintaining his cultural connections and documenting his world retrospectively in finely observed and elegant pen and ink drawings. These were commissioned from him and gave him both an income but also a reputation within the Aboriginal community and the settler population. By 1866 he had moved to the traditional Aboriginal camping area at Lake Moodemeere, near Wahgunyah, where he lived with his extended family until his death. His family grew produce for sale as well as selling artefacts, possum skin rugs, and drawings. It was here that he produced the sketchbook we see on display. He purchased his sketchbooks from the local stationers in Corowa. (Hand out printed out version or look at it digitised on our catalogue to see the richness of all fourteen drawings.)
Tommy McRae was described in an article in the Kilmore Free Press in September 1888 and he appears as a very independent and enterprising individual, an expert fisherman and staunch teetotaller who owned a good horse drawn wagon and ‘lives in a somewhat civilised fashion’. The article describes him as ‘somewhat of an artist…’ and that his sketchbooks are much sought after and contribute considerably to his income. He was described by an admiring settler as ‘an astute financier’ - hence his wagon and lifestyle. Despite his success his children were all removed from his care in the 1890s and he could not reverse this reprehensible decision.
His beautiful drawings evoke his past with great vitality as he recreates it on paper and he shows the world as it was around him looking not only at his experiences but also those who intruded on his landscape. Tommy McRae has a very distinctive style. The silhouettes of people, animals and trees dynamically occupy the page which he treats with great care to balance figure and background. He suggests movement with great economy and, apparently he always sketched in the ground first and then worked his way up from the foot. The trees though rendered in silhouette are often identifiable - eucalypts, cypress pines. The drawings were often later inscribed by their owners which can potentially confuse the interpretation of the subject matter. Our wonderful Lucas sketchbook is not so encumbered. It’s not clear why? The sketchbook holds 14 drawings that cover wildlife, 2 scenes of ceremonial dancing, hunting images featuring goannas, kangaroos, possums, and fishing, a Chinese person being chased by an Aboriginal depicted above a scene of men fighting, Two Aboriginal groups clashing, and an image of a squatter, a Black stockman and a Chinese man carrying water. It also features the scene of confrontation which you can see here. In which a tribal leader in a possum skin cloak is confronting a warrior who seems affronted, and has dropped his shield.
The Lucas Sketchbook was acquired by Richard Lucas for his older brother Tommy. He inscribes the volume, ‘The pen and ink sketches in this book were done about Xmas 1881... by Tommy McRae… for my brother T.L.. I saw Tommy McRae at work upon them.’ Invaluable Provenance as the Antiques Roadshow would say!
There is a poignancy to the commissioning of the sketchbook. The Lucas brothers had arrived with their two sisters in late 1881 trying to improve their chances of beating the TB which was afflicting them. Perhaps the sketchbook was a belated Christmas present from a younger brother to his older sibling. Sadly, Richard Lucas was the only survivor of his family group and moved to South Africa after their deaths to start afresh. He took the sketchbook with him. It stayed with members of the family in South Africa.
Interestingly, the first person to collect McRae’s drawings was the artist Theresa Walker the sister of Martha Berkeley who met him on Barnawatha station in the early 1860s. McRae produced at least 10 sketchbooks which have survived which are mainly held in public collections and the Library has another sketchbook and single drawing also by Tommy McRae. We acquired this memorable book in 2013 at auction in Melbourne and it is truly one of our greatest treasures. For what it tells us about the past, for what it says about Tommy’s McRae’s worldview, his nostalgia and his persistence and for the sheer brilliance of his memorable drawings.
The stories I have related today do not make for easy listening. They can make us uncomfortable or angry for the injustices meted out in the past. However, unless we look honestly at our complicated past, with all of its failings, what hope do we have of any true reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of this country–the true owners of this land.