John Rae is, perhaps, my favourite dead white male. On the surface, he’s really rather ordinary. An administrator who was meticulous and ambitious, he was a career public servant. He woke up, got dressed, went to work and came home again. He married and had six children. In many respects, he’s just another man of colonial Sydney, the type that looks serious and a bit stiff in photographs. Yet, Rae is, on closer inspection, quite an extraordinary individual.
Born in Scotland in 1813 and arriving in Australia in 1839, Rae, who studied arts and law, was a book collector, educator and inventor (designs for several wonderful inventions to support his interest in photography survive today). A self-taught artist he produced beautiful pictures of the world around him, including delightful doodles in the Minute Books of the Council of the City of Sydney. He also wrote romantic letters to his wife, his ‘Dear Bessie’.
This month marks the anniversary of Rae being appointed as the first full-time Town Clerk for the City of Sydney on 27 July in 1843. Rae’s biographer, Nan Phillips, has written how in this role he was ‘secretary, administrator and chief adviser to the council; he was also legal officer, pioneering the interpretation of the Sydney Corporation Act, and the framing of by-laws and regulations’.
By 1857, Rae was working for the railways in New South Wales; holding several positions and making multiple improvements on the running of, and the reporting on, a rail system. One of his most famous—but now taken-for-granted—innovations, was the inclusion of profit and loss accounts within a railway’s annual report. A standard feature of these annual reports today, Rae’s work resulted in a first for any railway system anywhere in the world, making him quite the celebrity on the transport tracks. Rae retired in 1893.
So, when Rae wasn’t working hard and being a generally good bloke, what was he doing? Well, he spent a lot of time drawing, painting and photographing Sydney. The State Library of New South Wales houses many of Rae’s artistic efforts including a lovely series of views of Sydney. The Library also holds one of Rae’s best-known watercolours, an 1850 piece titled ‘Turning the first turf of the first railway in the Australasian colonies at Redfern, Sydney, N.S.W. 3rd July 1850‘.
The start of the construction of a railway was seen by Sydneysiders as a symbol of great progress. Sure, it’s not an entirely accurate picture. Rae presents a glorious, sunny day when there was not a blue sky to be seen in Sydney on 3 July 1850, heavy rain making for a soggy, rather than celebratory, event.
Rae did, however, take great care in portraying a group of Aboriginal people in residence on a piece of land, known at the time, as the Cleveland Paddocks Reserve. This vignette appears to be a re-working of a picture of the group that Rae drew for the cover of Part III of Sydney Illustrated, a series of volumes he produced between 1842 and 1844 with artist JS Prout. Comparisons to other works by Rae suggest that these are Dharawal people from the Illawarra or Five Islands district who he sketched in 1842, including Moureet and William Darby (Nutangle). In this watercolour, Rae has placed this version of the group quite close to present-day Eveleigh Street and the area that many people refer to as ‘The Block’, the urban heartland of Sydney’s dispossessed Aboriginal peoples.
Another striking feature of this painting—something you see across many of Rae’s pictures—is his depiction of animals. You can easily identify a Rae artwork by looking at his horses. They all have quite assertive tails that say: ‘Look at me!’. They also have very quirky legs. Rae’s horse legs are either stretched out and appear impossibly long (very showgirl-esque), or they’re bent at odd, rather uncomfortable looking, angles. There are sixteen of these delightfully drawn horses in the foreground of ‘The Turning of the Turf’ with lots more in the background.
There are also quite a few puppers in this picture. You can see a similar, if not quite as pronounced pattern, in his dogs. All perky tails and awkward legs. Rae drew hundreds, if not thousands, of animals over his lifetime. Many of these are mythical beasts but many are everyday creatures that would have been common on the streets of Sydney in the 1800s. Standing, prancing or running at full gallop, his horses are particularly distinctive.
Rae died on 15 July 1900, almost 57 years to the day since his appointment to the City of Sydney and almost 50 years to the day since the turning of the first turf at Redfern.
You can of course see the painting and how it’s appeared on the Dictionary of Sydney here, but if you’d like to zoom right in to get a good look at all the details, head to the State Library’s new catalogue to use their fantastic new image viewer: https://collection.sl.
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!
For more Dictionary of Sydney, listen to the podcast with Rachel & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.
Franks, Rachel (2019). ‘In the Margins’, SL Magazine, Spring 2019, 28-31. https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/5403_sl_magazine_spring_2019_12awk-complete-web-revisednew3.pdf
Franks, Rachel (2019). ‘A Life in the Margins: John Rae and the early minute books of the City of Sydney.’ Script & Print, 42(3): 133–46.
‘The Sydney Railway.’ Freeman’s Journal, 4 July (1850): 6. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article115765220
Phillips, Nan (1976). ‘Rae, John (1813–1900).’ Australian Dictionary of Biography. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rae-john-4443
Rae, John (1842). Sydney Illustrated, Part III: cover, National Library of Australia (PIC Volume 551 #U7589 NK1524/21) https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135612093/
Rae, John (1863). ‘Letters to his Wife Elizabeth Rae, 22 June – 22 December 1863, transcribed by David Rae.’ Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (MLMSS 7774). https://search.sl.nsw.gov.au/permalink/f/1cvjue2/ADLIB110331965
Rae, John (1842). John Rae – portraits of Australian Aborigines, 1842, Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW (DG*D 230) http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110328058