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The danger and drama

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					Painter, Poet and 

                                                  Pu blic Ser vant

Jennifer Moran examines the
legacy of George Gordon McCrae
(1833–1927), one of Australia’s
first verse novelists



T
       he danger and drama
       of life at sea captured
       the imagination of
young George Gordon
McCrae (just seven years
old when his family sailed
for Australia in 1840) as
the captain of the Argyle,
John Gatenby, went to the
rescue of the brig Joachim
of Trieste, which had
foundered in a fierce gale
in the Bay of Biscay.
   ‘It was broad daylight,
and I, a small boy, was
lashed to the mizzen-mast
so as to see the wreck as
safely as possible. It was
blowing “great guns”, and
a tremendous sea on. I saw
her forefoot rise out of the
water, then perhaps half                          is not remembered as an artist, but he wrote       above:

her keel, and down she went, uncomfortably        that he had begun ‘drawing ships correctly         George Gordon McCrae 

                                                                                                     (1833–1927)

close to us, stern foremost.’                     after seeing Mr Oswald Walters Brierly’.           A Life on the Ocean Wave, 

   McCrae later described the rescue in his          Twenty-five years later, Brierly, by then Sir   SS Macedon c.1870

Recollections of Melbourne and Port Phillip       Oswald, impressed by McCrae’s sketches of          pen, ink and watercolour

Bay in the Early Forties, published in the        HMS Galatea, showed them to the Duke of            186.0 x 30.7 cm
                                                                                                     Pictures Collection
Victorian Historical Magazine in 1911 and         Edinburgh, who asked for two of the works.
                                                                                                     nla.pic-an6330410
1912 and collected in booklet form in 1987        The admiration was mutual: the McCrae
by Sullivan’s Cove, Adelaide. By the time of      family had in their collection Brierly’s           below left:
writing, his lifelong passion for boats had       painting of the schooner Wanderer, a ship          George Gordon McCrae
                                                                                                     (1833–1927)
resulted in dozens of drawings and paintings      owned by Benjamin Boyd, who ran steamers
                                                                                                     HMS Galatea 1867
of sailing ships, steamers and dinghies. McCrae   between Melbourne and Sydney and had set           pen and ink; 11.2 x 18.1 cm
                                                  up Boyd Town on Twofold Bay in southern            Pictures Collection
                                                  New South Wales. (Brierly had been in              nla.pic-an6330441
                                                  charge of Boyd’s whaling operations there
                                                  for a time.)
                                                     McCrae’s album of drawings (1839–1903),
                                                  held in the National Library’s Pictures
                                                  Collection, gathers many of his sketches,
                                                  pen-and-ink drawings and watercolours—
                                                  featuring not only ships, but also people
                                                  (famous visitors or historical figures),
                                                  significant events, observed scenes, his
                                                  designs for book covers, and illustrations


September 2008                                                                                                                     15
                                                                             that a life in Australia would offer his family
                                                                             opportunity and interest. He went ahead
                                                                             of the family, to establish a legal office in
                                                                             Melbourne, and Georgiana followed two
                                                                             years later, on the Argyle, with the four
                                                                             boys. The family lived briefly in Melbourne
                                                                             where, McCrae later recalled, he witnessed
                                                                             the hanging procession of three bushrangers
                                                                                       from Collins Street gaol to the
                                                                                             new prison at Batman’s Hill,
                                                                                                 and saw a corroboree in
                                                                                                   the bush at the back
                                                                                                      of Flagstaff Hill. The
                                                                                                       family soon moved to
                                                                                                        Mayfield, built on the
                                                                                                         Yarra. A few years
                                                                                                         later, McCrae’s father
                                                                                                        took on Arthur’s Seat,
                                                                                                        a cattle property near
above:                        for his published                                                       Dromana.
George Gordon McCrae          books. His skills as                                                     In Melbourne it was
(1833–1927)
Rescue from the Sea c.1882
                              a draughtsman were                                                 Georgiana, a talented
pen, ink and crayon           honed through some                                              artist and dedicated and
10.0 x 15.0 cm                years in the Melbourne                                    erudite diarist, who taught the
Pictures Collection           Patents Office, where—wrote his                boys, but at Arthur’s Seat the tutor John
nla.pic-an6335759
                              son, the poet Hugh McCrae, in a 1935           McLure supervised their schooling. Letters
George Gordon McCrae          memoir, My Father and My Father’s Friends—     from the boys to Georgiana recount some
(1833–1927)                   he ‘drew machinery in detail … collapsible     of their early experiences there. (Letters
Design for Humane Society’s   perambulators, buckets with double bottoms     to Georgiana from Her Four Sons, edited
Medal c.1882
                              to them, omnibus brakes, artificial ear­       by George Gordon McCrae, is held in the
pen, ink and wash
8 cm diameter                 drums, windmills, gas-ovens, tricycles, hat­   Library’s collection.) At Arthur’s Seat, McCrae
Pictures Collection           irons’ and more.                               took up fishing and messing about in boats
nla.pic-an6335762                Some of the drawings in the album date      and his love of nature was nurtured as he
                              from George Gordon McCrae’s childhood.         discovered the bush and its fauna and flora.
below:
George Gordon McCrae          His father, Andrew Murison McCrae, had           With his schooling finished, the young
(1833–1927)                   been a solicitor in Scotland. Andrew had       McCrae had a flurry of short-lasting jobs—as
Sailing Ship c.1880           married Georgiana, daughter of the Marquis     a surveyor, in a merchant store, and in a
pen, ink and watercolour      of Huntly (later the Duke of Gordon), and      bank, before joining the civil service in
15.6 x 18.7 cm
Pictures Collection           they had four sons, George Gordon being        1854, where he stayed until retiring in 1893
nla.pic-an6308203             the eldest. Andrew McCrae was persuaded        as Deputy Registrar-General. But his more
                                                                                     interesting legacy was produced
                                                                                          in his private time—his verse
                                                                                             narratives The Man in the Iron
                                                                                              Mask, Story of Balladeadro,
                                                                                              Mamba (‘The Bright-eyed’);
                                                                                              his poetry collections, The
                                                                                             Fleet and Convoy and Other
                                                                                             Verses and A Rosebud from
                                                                                             the Garden of the Taj; and his
                                                                                             novel, John Rous.
                                                                                                George McCrae was part of
                                                                                             the vibrant group of writers
                                                                                             who established a literary
                                                                                             community in mid-19th­
                                                                                             century Melbourne. With
                                                                                          Marcus Clarke (‘my father’s most


16                                                                                                 National Library of Australia News
irresponsible friend’, according to Hugh           earlier that year, it had been his intention      above:

McCrae) he was a founding member of the            ‘to bring out a mythological tradition of the     George Gordon McCrae (1833–1927)

                                                                                                     Botanical Gardens, Melbourne
Yorick Club. Other members included Adam           aborigines, the grandest and, perhaps, the        c.1870
Lindsay Gordon, Henry Clarence Kendall,            most startling that they possess. I found,        watercolour; 15.7 x 28.9 cm
John Shillinglaw (who had the added                however, upon reflection, that a considerable     Pictures Collection
attraction for McCrae of being shipping            time would be required to enable me to            nla.pic-an6330398
master at the Port of Melbourne) and Dr            do even ordinary justice to my theme, and         below:
Patrick Moloney.                                   being desirous meanwhile of keeping alive         George Gordon McCrae (1833–1927)
   McCrae’s workroom was ‘full of cupboards        the public interest in aboriginal tradition and   Design for cover, Balladeadro
and manuscripts, and ships, and pipes, and         story, I have been induced to put forth the       c.1867
                                                                                                     pen and ink; 25.0 x 19.3 cm
knives, and bits of tobacco,’ Hugh McCrae          present volume.’
                                                                                                     Pictures Collection
recalled. ‘It had very bad gas-light; and I’ve        How faithfully McCrae followed stories         nla.pic-an6326811
seen George at work on a poem, with his            he might have been told is not
nose on a level with his nib, writing divinely.’   clear. What is more certain
   George’s imaginative life was fuelled by        is that the discipline of
his curiosity about the world he lived in—the      writing in verse was as
customs and stories of the Aboriginal people       fascinating to him as the
of Victoria, his interest in the flora and         narratives he chose to tell.
fauna of Australia, his travels back to his        For The Man in the Iron
homeland and abroad (on leave in 1864, he          Mask: A Poetical Romance
visited England, Scotland, France, Mauritius       (George Robertson,
and the Seychelles), and the musical               1873), McCrae chose
performances and burgeoning theatre of             from amongst the several
the colony. He woke his children by playing        theories of the time to
either My Pretty Jane or Sally in Our Alley,       make his masked man
alternatively on different ocarinas (a basso       the twin brother of Louis
and a soprano) according to Hugh McCrae,           Quatorze. As McCrae
and he ‘even translated, onomatopoeically,         wrote in his preface:
bird language, spoken down the chimney
into my sister’s room’.
                                                      The story of the mysterious
   In his preface to Mamba (‘The Bright­
                                                      prisoner in the Iron Mask has
eyed’): An Aboriginal Reminiscence (H.T.
                                                      been already, as everyone
Dwight, 1867), McCrae wrote that after                is aware, presented to the
the publication of Story of Balladeadro


September 2008                                                                                                                  17
                                                                                 Indigenous Australians might seem
                                                                                 constrained by a kind colonial sensibility,
                                                                                 and though he is not known as well as his
                                                                                 friend Marcus Clarke, George McCrae’s
                                                                                 contemporaries admired his work greatly.
                                                                                    The Library’s McCrae album offers
                                                                                 something more personal than the literary
                                                                                 judgments of his time or ours—whimsical
                                                                                 insights into McCrae’s character; his
                                                                                 wicked humour (witness ‘His Serene
                                                                                 Transparency the “Dook”’, ‘Andre Chenier’s
                                                                                 Chloe with her Chloes On, Dedicated to the
                                                                                 Antigymnogynists of Melbourne’, and the
                                                                                 political cartoons); and a commitment to
                                                                                 the cultural life of Victoria (drawings for
                                                                                 plays, designs for medals). There is also an
                                                                                 indication of the frustrated public servant
                                                                                 thrilled to be escaping, as in his depiction
                                                                                 of the Norfolk, homeward bound, alongside
                                                                                 a banner bearing the word, ‘Libertad’, and
                                                                                 captioned ‘one year’s leave on ½ pay’, along
                                                                                 with McCrae’s further note, ‘A bit of my old
                                                                                 office blotting pad 1864.’

                                                                                 Jennifer MorAn is a writer and editor for
                                                                                 several journals and newspapers




above:
                             world under a variety of aspects, and 

George Gordon McCrae 
              has formed at widely distant epochs a 

(1833–1927)
                        fertile theme alike for the dramatist, 

His Serene Transparency, the 
      the novel-writer, and the historian 

Dook 1867
                          … I do not think, however, that any 

pen and ink; 17.9 x 11.0 cm

                                    one has been beforehand with me in 

Pictures Collection

                                    adapting this narrative as the basis and 

nla.pic-an6326798

                                    framework of a poem in the English 

right:
                             language. 

George Gordon McCrae 

(1833–1927)

                                 McCrae published only one
Norfolk, Homeward Bound
1864                             prose novel. In John Rous (The
pen, ink and crayon              Specialty Press, 1918), subtitled
22.1 x 13.3 cm                   A Queen Anne Story in an
Pictures Collection
                                 Australian Setting, McCrae gave
nla.pic-an6330435
                                 his protagonist some of his own
                                 passions, ‘showing in simple words
                                 the passage of a not uneventful
                                 life animated throughout by an
                                 inborn and unconquerable love
                                 of the sea and a most ardent
                                 patriotism’. It is illustrated not by
                                 McCrae, but by Lionel Lindsay.
                                    Though some of his writing
                                 seems quaint now, and overblown,
                                 and though his attitude to


18                                                                                                  National Library of Australia News

				
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