This drawing was posted to the Director of the National Museum of Victoria with ‘Presented by Mrs A. Pattenden 15.7.29’ written in ink on the sketch. The accompanying letter from Mrs Pattenden suggested the Director discard the work if it was of no interest. Nearly 70 years later, the sketch and the letter were recovered in the original envelope when the museum’s library was being packed for relocation to the site at Carlton Gardens.
The distinctive pen and ink drawing of silhouetted dancing corroboree figures is typical of the work of the 19th-century Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae (c. 18301901). The body of each man is illustrated with distinctive and individual ceremonial designs.
McRae was perhaps the first published Aboriginal artist in Australia; sketches from the museum and the State Library of Victoria’s collections were included in the 1929 Primitive Art exhibition. Little credit was given to McRae’s artistic skill in the exhibition catalogue, which described his work as ‘showing European influence’. It is possible that Mrs Pattenden saw the exhibition and consequently donated this work.
McRae gained recognition for his work in his lifetime and sold drawings for cash and commissions. He was known variously as Tommy McCrae, Tommy Barnes, Yakaduna and Chief of the Wahgunyah tribe of north-eastern Victoria.
McRae began sketching in the 1860s, and much of the subject matter for his works was drawn from memory and oral traditions. He mostly used black ink, but sometimes worked with red, blue and purple. McRae began by drawing the ground and then working the figures upwards.