ISO RAE (1860-1940)


Isobel (Iso) Rae was born on 18 August 1860 to Thomas Rae, a partner in a candle and soap manufacturing company and Janet Love. Rae was the youngest of five and had a privileged upbringing. At the age of 17 Iso Rae enrolled at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. Under the tutelage of Oswald Rose Campbell and George Folingsby, Rae was taught anatomical precision at the same time she was taught to paint in a tonal style. Fellow pupils were John Longstaff, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Rupert Bunny. 

Iso Rae's skills were recognised and well received. In 1883 the jury of the student's exhibition at the National Gallery School honoured her with special mention. She was singled out again in 1884 and 1886.

In 1887, Iso Rae moved with mother Janet and sister Alison to Paris. For the next three years Rae mingled with other Australian expats and was deeply influenced by French Post-Impressionist art. Iso Rae's drawings during this period featured strong black lines with relatively flat areas of colour, possibly influenced by the golden age of French posters in the late nineteenth century. 

In 1890 Iso Rae moved to an artists's colony of expats from Australia, Britain and the United states in Étaples in Picardy, a move which was to have large impact on her career. Although working and living in Étaples, Iso Rae regularly exhibited works in the Paris Salon as well as London. Painting in a manner that was now accepted by the traditional academies, Iso Rae's work received plenty of praise from critics and was well received by the market with her works selling in both Paris and London. 

During this period, Iso Rae's works were also exhibited in Australia and New Zealand. Rae's works were included in the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition at Dunedin in 1889-90, the Victorian Artists' Society in 1896 and at Mrs Theo Anderson's Studio in Collins Street, Melbourne in 1908. Rae also maintained also her friendships with fellow Australian artists whilst living at Étaples. Rupert Bunny visited in 1902 whilst on his honeymoon and again in 1907. 

This idyllic and peaceful life was not to last. The political climate was changing and despite many artists having left Étaples in the lead up to World War 1, the Rae's were still there when war broke out. 

Étaples was strategically placed near the coast and as a result was selected to become what ended up being the largest army base of World War 1. British, Canadian, Scottish and Australian forces all passed through for training, retraining, to stock up on supplies and to house prisoners. There were also several hospitals onsite that serviced tens of thousands of men injured at the Sommes. This close proximity to the realities of war resulted in Iso Rae producing some 200 pastel drawings whilst working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) of the British Cross. Sixteen men had been appointed Australian official war artists in 1918 and yet Iso Rae was only one of two women who documented the war for years (the other artist was Jessie Traill who spent the war working in a military hospital).

The camp could be deeply depressing and dark. Between soldiers who had been injured and those who were waiting to return to the front, there was a constant fear of death that hung heavy in the air. Iso Rae spent a great deal of time and energy working with the VAD which left little time to return to her studio to paint large scale oils. With canvas and time in short supply, Iso Rae produced small drawings with pastels on paper. She depicted various scenes of day-to-day life in the camp: Germans prisoners working, soldiers playing football, tight lines of tents lined up in several rows, the occasional glimmer of romance during bleak and desperate times.

Betty Snowden (assistant curator of art at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra) noted that is many of Rae's drawings there is a strong sense of waiting, whether it was waiting to be sent to the front, waiting to be sent home or waiting to die. These drawings offer the viewer a rare glimpse of what life was like behind the lines. 

Iso Rae's mother died during the war in 1916 however even after the war ended, Iso Rae and her sister Alison remained in Étaples until 1932. Never forgetting the horrors they witnessed, Hitler's rise to power concerned the Rae sister's greatly and they moved to St Leonards in Sussex, England in 1934 where Iso Rae remained until her death in 1940, a year into the World War 2. 

Iso Rae was described as being sensitive and quiet. Painting and drawing for Rae was as much an exercise in reflection as it was an exercise in documentation. Works by Iso Rae can be found in several major public collections in Australia and France including the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia and the Musee de Touquet in France.