“As I’ve told you, as a writer, I’m a good painter.”
Bob McRae is a man of many stories. The first wartime artist commissioned by the Australian Navy since World War II, an art teacher for 30 years and, an affinity to the ocean fill an aural arsenal that could enthral you for hours.
Huddled between big brute newly builts and old charm renos in Austinmer’s Allen Street is Mr McRae’s house. A humble and quaint cottage with a well kept yard and yellow-maroon façade that only perpetuated the character of the man I recently met.
Broad smiling Bob greeted me in his front yard – a dawdling car and expected guest were enough to presume that I had arrived.
A northern suburbs home provides a fitting context for his passions; natural history and naval history. A self-confessed contradiction of life and death, which at the same time are a harmonious metaphor of one another, Bob marries the two with an unrivalled enthusiasm and methodical research. Horse sat down with the man himself to talk about his passions, his paintings and a little bit of history.
Horse: Bob, so how long have you been painting?
Bob: Since the days at art school. I always drew and such, I would have gone to art school around ’73 and got out of there around in ’80, having finished a Diploma of Education as well. I always painted. I mixed teaching, but always painted. I saw ideas and learnt all the way along. I became a teacher and the nature of the job in those days was, a long time ago, that you worked as a teacher for four days a week, and then we were given a day to pursue the trade or the profession that you had. That helped my career, that time, that extra time.
Horse: Did you always want to be an artist? How did you come into it?
Bob: It was always going to be doing something with natural history, although I was never really academically inclined. I just never got the idea of doing that until after school. But I wanted to be working with natural history, maybe a ranger but I pursued that same vein in my paintings. That’s one of the things that I pursue in my work. I research things heavily, look at different ways to tell the story. As I’ve told you, as a writer, I’m a good painter.
Horse: (Laughs) The natural history element to your paintings, has that always been a part of your life?
Bob: Yes. As a child I was drawing dolphins, I was fascinated by them and how they worked and what they were.. I would draw them and draw them and draw them. That’s probably why I wasn’t so good academically.
Bob: No, no, no. I’ve always drawn and tried to understand and work things out with my mind.
Horse: Many of your works allude to the water with a strong theme of the ocean running through.
Bob: I’ve always gone to it. Since I learned to swim and learned to surf later in life, just before 20 or around that point of time. I would go to the surf all the time, and I’d not always use a board, I use fins, because I had big motorcycles, and that’s a habit I still have. I use big fins and go out in the big sea.
I dive as well, so I live by the sea here and I am very privileged to be where I am. I go in the water most days one way or the other. This afternoon, when I get back from my next adventure my daughter and my son are coming over, and we’ll go after lobsters and see if there’s any there.
Horse: Do you get many?
Bob: I do.
Bob: Although this morning there were two guys going off there. As I looked at them from over the hill, I wasn’t sure if they were really good or really bad. They were in a difficult spot, but they seemed to know what they were doing, but I was … I wasn’t sure whether they were good or bad. If they’ve cleaned out the lobsters, that won’t be where I go this afternoon.
Horse: Well, all the best in your hunt! Naval history, where did that spark come from?
Bob: Yes. I lived in Darwin in ’99. My family and I lived there, and at that time the Timor war was on, and the UNIMET ships came in. UNIMET was the United Nations Naval Force to support the Australian’s going to Timor to give the Indonesians the flick from the place and to save people. I used to do pictures of the liners at the port trying to earn income.
Fort Hill and Stokes Hill Wharf I would work on. I was also teaching at the university there, but I would paint these ships when they would come in. Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese ship and some others. They were coming back to help the East Timor situation, historically.
I sold a few watercolours to some of the crew, but I did a lot of work there, a lot of studies. When I returned to Wollongong, I was talking to a friend and he showed me the book of war artists, that the War Memorial had sent, by Rick Amor and Wendy Sharp.
As I looked at the work, I thought ‘well, this work is no better or no worse than mine.’
Horse: So, you contacted them?
Bob: I rang up the War Memorial and asked them if they were interested in seeing my work.
I said to them: “Don’t waste my time if you’re not interested, but you might be interested because you don’t seem to have any Navy stuff”
And they said: “Well you should come along.”
I did and they bought a set of work. That was the beginning of pursuing that Navy history thing. Darwin was a place where I would also do other works, and I did commissions for Armadale Council, Wollongong Council of ships that were named after those places. They were nearly commissioned, and one thing led to another, and eventually I went to Iraq and lived on a ship.
Horse: You were the first naval wartime artist since World War II.
Bob: Correct. There were others sent from the War Memorial but I was appointed by the Navy due to their dissatisfaction with what they were getting.
Bob: The War Memorial artists are paid for by the Armed Forces. Army, Navy, Air Force. But oddly enough, the Navy referred to the War Memorial as the Army Air Force Museum. If you get the drift…
Horse: Ahuh. Do you think that you filled that void with your work?
Bob: I did, I did. They were very happy… I didn’t get much money but I didn’t care because it was an awesome adventure. I compare it to being in a Star Wars movie.
Bob: Yes, in the middle of it, inside it. Real Armies and machines. It was awesome.
Horse: So, did you see any action?
Bob: Well, no one was shooting at me but I did see baddies. I was on a British ship called Campbelltown. Campbelltown went to Action Stations when Iran sent a little boat called the Boghammar, it was a dhow with guns, which is traditional ship from Arabia, and they came out to the border post, and the British at that time had had a crew, a rigid inflatable boat crew grabbed by the Iranians and kept, and media presentations of them saying propaganda and intimidating, and all that stuff.
So the ship I was on didn’t want any of that to happen, so they had guns everywhere! I was treading on handguns. They had guns all over the place when those Iranian extremist’s came close to the ship.
Bob: They were really up for it if the Iranian guys came anywhere near them. They were ready. (Laughs)
Horse: Did anything happen?
Bob: Nothing. Nothing happened. (Laughs)
Horse: (Laughs) I guess that’s a bit of a good thing.
Bob: It’s a good thing.
Horse: So, other than your experiences, what other influences do you have?
Bob: I’ve always been fascinated by Peter Scott because he was a naval painter, and he’s also a wild fowl painter. Which is a strong connection because I love natural history and am interested in military history and the history of artists that have gone before, war artists.
I guess in Australia, the tradition goes back a hundred-or-so years to people like Arthur Streeton, who are famous in the art history of this country. Britain has a set of these people as well. Their works always had a real passion about them because war is a passionate thing.
But still rather dreadful, and for the artist to capture … It’s not like a photograph. A photograph can’t say it, but a painting can… If it’s done well! When I went away, I was tasked with recording men and women in action, and in dramatic situations.
Not in passive situation. Although I did all of that…
I did a ton of work. It was delightful. I drew hundreds of portraits. I drew everybody. Everybody wanted to be drawn. They knew their own history and they were being recorded in history and they were pleased with it.
Horse: You were just saying then that you look at painting to be so much more than a photograph. Do you think that’s because the art can express the experience more than a photograph?
Bob: Yes. As you’ve seen with my collage-type things, I am telling a duplicity … A number of stories together. Historically, there’s an issue that goes back to the First World War. There was a man called C.W. Bean who was employed by the government to accurately record all the things that had happened in the Dardanelles, and also on the Western front.
There was a photographer. The photographer was called … Oh crumbs… Frank Hurley!
One of Australia’s greatest photographers, awesome man. Awesome adventurer. He used to take pictures and they could never tell a story. In his books he describes bombs landing beside him and not going off. Big huge things that could have killed him and made him confetti, but he couldn’t tell that story, he couldn’t take that picture. So he started to composite pictures together to tell the story.
He would mix them, and he received great criticism from C.W. Bean because C.W. Bean wanted the reality of it, but he had no concept of what Hurley was trying to do. That was accurately telling the story of what really happened. To tell the story with the pictures.
I collage with my images, and I try to tell a story. See these sculptures below these pictures up here.
There’s a history of cenotaphs and war memorials, and sculptures; they’re all over this country, all over the world commemorating a whole generation of men disappeared. All they could do was put their name on a plaque to remember them.
Binyon put the words: ‘We will remember them’, Kipling wrote ‘Lest we forget’. Kipling’s son died in the First World War. That is what I’m looking at when I do these bas-relief carvings on the bottom of the painting. I want to touch a hundred years ago.
Horse: That’s interesting. You really are trying to tell a story with a lot of your artworks, as the narrative is very important to you. Do you like the idea of being a storyteller as a painter?
Bob: Yes, and a historian as well. I read. I’m not a great historian but it gives me the picture. I can get it in here and I can put it down. (Bob taps his temple)
“But the people, they’re killed and they disappear. But it’s recordable, it’s history. You don’t do history any service by ignoring it.”
Horse: How much time do you think you spend researching it?
Bob: I can’t answer that.
Bob: It’s like how long does it take to do a painting? I read a lot! Now that I’m retired, I read more than I did before. Yeah, and I paint a lot too.
Horse: You’ve just recently retired from teaching. Do you think there’s the connection, or is there a transition that you’ve had between teaching, painting, and now just full-time painting?
Bob: There is a transition. It’s an odd thing. I find it odd, because for 30 years I taught in the Tafe College, and I was good at it, I believe. I want to do it again, so I’ve just signed up and designed two courses that I will teach at the Adult Education in Wollongong one. One class will run in Wollongong, one class will run in Thirroul Library. One will be teaching birds, one will be doing collages.
That will be a four-week duration in May, and three-hour time for each of those lessons. I’m looking forward to that. There will be some challenge in it, because it’s a different sort of teaching, but I’m looking forward to it, because that’s what I’m good at, and you got to do what you’re good at.
Horse: Of course. You’ve got some things coming up in July as well?
Bob: I’ll be traveling with a friend who’s a commander, Ivan Ingham, he’s the captain of HMAS Perth. He’s the only English officer serving in the Australian Navy who is paid by the British nation.
Horse: That’s interesting.
Bob: I think, this is his third commission, which is unusual. His middle commission was Toowoomba, and they made a documentary about him catching pirates off Somalia. It’s three parts on one of the Discovery channels. Interesting guy. He fought in the Falklands War as a very young man.
He also fought in the Balkans War. He got this new ship, and he’s invited myself and a friend. At this stage, we’re going on a trip on the newly refurbished HMAS Perth, from Darwin to Perth. That’ll take ten days, and that’ll be interesting.
Horse: Sounds awesome. Then later this year?
Bob: Well, I’ve had a lot of contact with submarine people, and I’m hoping to go on a sub trip. I’m not sure. It could be August, and that trip, if it happens, will be between Jarvis Bay and Melbourne. Other than that, I’ll be going to the base in Fremantle, I hope to go even next week or the week after is my hope, because then I’ll be able to have some work ready for the submarine centenary at Holbrook.
Holbrook’s down the coast. Have you ever been there? There’s a big black submarine on a stick.
Horse: I think I might have been through there.
Bob: That sub at Holbrook is named after a captain of an English submarine called B11 I believe. It went into the Dardanelles and sank a battleship off the coast of Istanbul.
Bob: It got into the Sea of Marmara, through all the minefields, and it sank a Turkish Battleship called the Mesûdiye. The captain was Holbrook and moved to that town, and they changed the name of the town. He’s a Victoria Cross winner, and they changed the name of the town to Holbrook.
So when the centenary of Anzac happens, all the submarine people will go there. I hope to have six drawings done of the Collins-class submarine to have in the museum to show these men.
Horse: You spoke before about how, because you’re in naval history and natural history, there’s a bit of a contradiction. How would you explain that?
Bob: Okay. Well, it’s about who I am, I guess. War affected my life. My father was six years in the Second World War, came back a pretty dangerous guy, and that affected my life, the way that my life went… Yeah.. So, but I always adored nature, I got that from my mother I guess, I don’t know. Although I saw it as a kid in Foster. They’re just two elements that have always interested me.
Bob: I actually put them together in etchings.
I’ve done a lot of this sort of thing, which is digging holes in the ground looking for buried Spitfires; that’s a metaphor. Looking for stuff under the ground, or wrecks that have happened. Getting to the place where they are, and then trying to draw a picture about that.
If you look at that picture, there are the animals that were there. There’s a king brown crawling amongst the cylinders of the radial engine that’s been wrecked, a Liberator Bomber. There was a set of brown quail that went past. They were scared by this black falcon that was attacking us, attacking us because we were near it’s nest. All of this was above the wreckage of this Liberator. All the men had perished when it crashed. Thirty-three or four. It was part of the three-hundred-and-eightieth bomber group that was based out of Darwin.
I love to tell the story of these wrecks. The wreckage, the carnage, the horror. I like the contradiction. The military wreckage, the carnage, the history, and the living animals that still fly; the birds still fly, the planes that flew and the planes that wrecked.
But the people, they’re killed and they disappear. But it’s recordable, it’s history. You don’t do history any service by ignoring it. So I try to remember them in my paintings and the stories they could have told.
For more information on Bob’s artwork, you can contact him via email at BobMcRae54@hotmail.com or via his website: BobMcRae.com.au
For more information on his Bird Drawing Class or Hand Drawing Class