State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 78 Spring 2006


Night life in Melbourne in the eighteen forties. Page from sketch book of Hugh McCrae. Courtesy of Vane Lindesay.


Vane Lindesay
Hugh McCrae as Comic Illustrator

Hugh McCrae, by himself. Sketch courtesy of Vane Lindesay.

Following the precedent set in eighteenth-century Europe, and later in America, it was only a matter of time before magazines, as a product of leisure reading, were produced in Australia. The early settlers were dependent on slow sailing ships to bring all their requirements from England, including hopelessly out-of-date newspapers and magazines. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were about 150 British magazines in existence, most of them of a literary nature and not illustrated.
Satire was not a considered ingredient of the first printed magazines. However, with the founding in 1841 of the two satirical illustrated weekly publications, Charivari in Paris,

Letter to an unknown person from Hugh McCrae. The text reads: ‘Wivenhoe / Dec 29. 1949. / Millewa Avenue / Wahroonga. N. S. W. / How kind of you to remember me — and Claire, too! — I would have sent you my book except for the fact that after I had given away copies (only ones) to writers who previously honoured me with rubbish of their own, I was left without a bean .. and SO …../ George


McCrae neglected, too. / Meanwhile I'm holidaying at Wahroonga, a place quite newsless. I loaf in Honey's garden accompanied by a bull-terrier, her chien-ami, who ruined my trousers by leaping against me .. and, yesterday he thumped my testicles so shrewdly that I clutched myself — before women — & SCREAMED!!! / Affectionately / Hugh'. Courtesy of Vane Lindesay.

followed by Punch in London, this situation changed, with their influence on popular magazine publishing felt the world over, including Australia, with the founding of Melbourne Punch in 1855 being the first of many having illustrated satirical content Among these The Comic Australian was successfully launched in October 1911, achieving a weekly run until June 1913. It had 24 reduced-tabloid pages, covers, comic strips in four-colour tints, joke drawings and humorous articles, with snippets and rhymes making up the rest of the contents.
Produced in Sydney, The Comic Australian attracted artists from every state in the young Commonwealth, publishing the work of Ambrose Dyson, Hal Gye, Cecil Hartt, Bert Rosling and the first published cartoons of J.C. Bancks, who of course was later to be nationally famous for his red-headed, school-wagging, orchard-raiding, fighting youngster with the ‘terrible right’, Ginger Meggs.
Among this band of cartoonists to contribute was Hugh Raymond McCrae (1876-1958), remembered today as Australia's finest lyric poet, but little known or remembered for his other considerable talent as a fine pen-and-ink illustrator, and the first artist in Australia to have his comic strips printed in colour. He also contributed some prose, a large number of joke drawings, front cover cartoons on themes both domestic and foreign, and designed the amusing masthead for The Comic Australian.
McCrae's talent for cartooning was developed at a time when the novel comic strip was steadily gaining popularity with both readers and editorial managements of magazines. His talent for drawing was in all likelihood encouraged when a youth as part of the Norman Lindsay bohemians living in Melbourne. Hugh McCrae's first published artwork appeared in 1899 in Norman Lindsay's short-lived, quaint magazine, The Rambler, over the signature ‘Splash’. Later work he signed ‘Mac’.
Considering the infancy of this particular creation, McCrae had a remarkable appreciation of the stylistic form and requirements of the comic strip — exaggerated action and expression of both features and body; the arrangement of speech balloons; and continuity of action in every drawn panel.
Today, the humour of these early comic strips everywhere, including those of McCrae, seems very naïve, characterised as simple and innocent, whilst comically violent. But when it originated, this lively communication medium was a tremendous novelty. The naïveté of this formative humour in the European and American popular press of the time was of course reflected in the work of Australian cartoonists. This is plainly evident with Hugh McCrae's comic characters ‘Jim and Jam’, published in The Comic Australian, being obviously modelled on the American artist Rudolph Dirks's comic strip characters ‘Hans and Fritz, the Katzenjammer Kids’, being in turn originally copied directly from the ‘Demon Children, Max and Moritz’, the creation of the German artist Wilhelm Busch.
Gradually The Comic Australian took on the look and tone of its title. In particular, the

Jim and Jam: The first Australian comic strip printed in colour. Drawn for The Comic Australian by Hugh McCrae, 1911. Courtesy of Vane Lindesay


Cover of The Comic Australian, 9 April 1912. Courtesy of Vane Lindesay.

comic strips by Hugh McCrae featured different types from time to time in situations which assumed already-established Australian stock characters — ‘Cocky Cornstalk’, complete with whiskers and carpet bag, visiting the city for the first time, bushrangers, swagmen, New Chums, Aborigines, snakes, and English-talking, smiling, japing koalas and kangaroos.
A journal striving, if a little self-consciously, for a national identity, The Comic Australian remains a fascinating relic from an age of unbelievable innocence.
In 1914 Hugh McCrae decided to attempt a living in America, where he eventually drew for the magazine Puck, and was also engaged in some part-time acting on the New York stage. It was there he met fellow-Australian Pat Sullivan, the creator of ‘Felix the Cat’ animated films. Sullivan invited McCrae to work with him on the sensationally successful ‘Felix’ films. McCrae, by declining this offer, passed up his only chance to make a fortune as an artist. In 1917, back in Australia, he acted the role of his relative, Adam Lindsay Gordon, in an Australian film, produced in a number of Melbourne locations.
During 1924, the Melbourne Herald newspaper group acquired the weekly magazine Punch (formerly Melbourne Punch), appointing the poet Kenneth Slessor as chief subeditor, and he in turn secured, among many other fine cartoonists, Hugh McCrae, then living in Sydney. His cartoon drawings and illustrations appeared in all fifty-two issues of Punch until, after one year of publication, it was discontinued and ‘incorporated’ into Table Talk in December 1925.
After the failure of Punch, McCrae returned to Sydney, accepting the appointment to co-edit with Ernest Watt a monthly literary-social magazine, The New Triad. The cover of the first issue (August 1927) — and several others following it — was designed by Hugh's artist-daughter Mahdi in the art deco manner in vogue at the time. Other than Hugh's own highly skilled black-and-white illustrations, those of Cecil (Unk) White, Adrian Feint, Hal Gye, Percy Lindsay, Betty Dyson and her father Will's satirical etchings, with a double-spread, full page cartoon satire, were a feature among the text contents.

The lion smoking the cigar became a signal to his friends that Marcus was within.
Illustration to ‘Marcus Clarke’ in Hugh McCrae's Story-book Only, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1948. In Hugh's boyhood George Gordon McCrae, a friend of Clarke's, used to point out to his son the lion on the approach to the Melbourne Public Library where Clarke reputedly left an unfinished cigar as a signal to his friends that he was at his post in the library.

Again, after only one year, McCrae's employment came to an end, as The New Triad ceased publication in 1928.
It would appear that this period was the last of Hugh's freelance cartooning for publication, although he was to produce many dincus-style fun drawings illustrating his 1948 collection, Story-book Only.
Until his death in 1958, aged 82, Hugh McCrae continued to write poetry, prose, drama for publication; and in his letters to friends, cleverly, and often humorously, illustrated with figures or with landscape scenes, he continued to practice the art of illustration.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Janet Hay for permission to reproduce the previously unpublished page from Hugh McCrae's sketch book and the letter of 29 December 1949, both in the possession of Vane Lindesay.