Isobel Rae was known as “Iso”, her nickname a somewhat relevant and familiar word to us today, as was her likely experience of isolation. At the outbreak of World War I, Iso Rae remained in Etaples, France with her mother and sister, whilst most foreigners moved away from the former peaceful fishing village, which had been home to a thriving expatriate artistic community.
Iso and her sister Alison worked for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) with the British Red Cross from 1915 – 1919. As an artist, Rae depicted the scenes around her, producing around 200 drawings, mostly pastels and gouache, depicting the daily life of the military camp at Etaples.
Her lively and sensitive drawings are now recognised as important historical and social documents, beyond their artistic merit. Although not officially appointed as a war artist, Iso Rae was one of two Australian women who documented the war for many years (the other being Jessie Traill who worked in a military hospital during World War I).
The camp at Etaples was a place where allied troops – French, British, Canadian, Scottish, New Zealand and Australian forces, gathered before being called up to fight; a training facility; supplies depot; a detention centre and home to thousands in tent cities and ordered hospitals. Iso Rae captured camp life in her drawings of soldiers; the barracks; the hospitals; the prisoners, both German and allied; their accommodation; the horses; their training and recreation (football, cinema, theatre).
Iso Rae was a skilled draughtsperson, her marks lively and capturing a spontaneity, yet balanced with thought-out and balanced compositions. This is a particularly fine drawing depicting a group of soldiers huddled around a brazier at night, embers blowing in the breeze and their individual uniforms bathed in an eerie glow. We have identified the figures as Scottish; the blue coat of the Hospital Blues worn by convalescents; Australian with the slouch hat and New Zelander with the ‘lemon squeezer’ hat. The peaked tents in the background provide an anchored backdrop giving a further intimacy to the group of figures.
There is an aura of quiet and calm, the relaxed poses and dangling cigarettes, but one laced with tension or perhaps boredom; the holding pattern of an unknown future the nature for many at Etaples. This is not a depiction of heroes of war, rather the gritty reality and the daily grind of behind the scenes. Rae’s use of coloured paper highlights the contrast between the army brown and the bright red and orange balanced against the blues and touch of green found in a hat band.
The drawing is accompanied by a letter of dedication from the matron at Etaples on behalf of the nurses and VAD to a Captain MacIlwaine.