A Devil Étaples

Isobel (Iso) Rae

A Devil Étaples by Isobel (Iso) Rae


Isobel (Iso) Rae
A Devil Étaples
charcoal, chalk and watercolour on paper
48.2 x 40.6 cm

signed lower right:
inscribed lower left: A DEVIL
Note verso: The St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital
July 11th 1917

Dear Captain MacIlwaine
Will you please / accept this small / remembrance of Etaples / from the Sisters,/ V.A.D. nurses & myself / We all want to thank / you for your kindness / to us during the / past two years & / to tell you how / sorry we are / you are leaving.
Yrs sincerely
C.E. Todd

Miss Constance Elizabeth Todd was appointed the matron at the foundation of the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital at Etaples in 1915 where she remained in charge until demobilisation in February 1919, including overseeing the repositioning of the hospital to Trouville following a bombing raid in May 1918. She was awarded the Military Medal in July 1918, “For gallantry and devotion to duty during enemy air raid. She moved freely about the wards during the bombing encouraging the Sisters and patients and displayed great bravery and presence of mind throughout. She was also awarded the Order of St John of Jerusalem (Honorary Associate); the Royal Red Cross, 1st class June 1916; the Bronze Star, 1814 – 15 and 4 blue Service Chevrons.

The St John Ambulance Brigade hospital’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Charles Trimble, provided weekly reports which records the preparation of the ‘Cardiograph Room’ for Captain MacIlwaine, for his efficient investigation of ‘Soldier’s Heart.’ (report, 27 September 1916)

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The artist
Captain MacIlwaine
Collection of Glen Thompson, Irish military artist


Further reading:

A Century of Australian Women Artists 1840s – 1940s, Deutscher Fine Art, 1993

Gorman, Clem and Therese, Interpide, Australian Women Artists in Early Twentieth Century France, Monash University Publishing, 2020

Hammond, Victoria and Peers, Juliet, Completing the Picture: Women Artists and the Heidelberg Era, Artmoves, 1992, p.62

Holford, Josie, Women Artists of WW1: Iso Rae, Blog, 6 January 2018

McDonnell, Bridget, 'A woman’s forgotten war’, in Antiques and Art Australia, Volume 1, Number 5, Spring 1989

Snowden, Betty, Iso Rae in Etaples : Another perspective of war, Wartime : official magazine of the Australian War Memorial, 1999, no. 8, pp36-41

Walton, Alex curator at the Imperial War Museum, BBC Essays on War podcast https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00011hs




Further Information

This is a particularly fine drawing depicting a group of troops 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 uniform 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 the 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.

Iso Rae was a skilled draughtsperson, her marks lively and capturing a spontaneity, yet balanced with thought-out and balanced compositions. She produced around 200 drawings, mostly pastels and gouache, depicting the daily life of the military camp at Etaples. Other examples exist of the same subject as A Devil, Etaples[1], albeit of a sketchier nature, and perhaps the intention as a gift explains the more finished nature of this sensitive drawing.

Iso Rae undertook studies at the National Gallery School, under the tutelage of George Folingsby (Painting and Oswald Rose Campbell (Design), consistently receiving honours for her work. She exhibited with the Victorian Academy of Arts from 1881 -83 before moving to France with her mother and sister in 1887. Here she attended the Academie Colarossi and by the early 1890s the family settled in Etaples, a picturesque fishing village on the coast of northern France, home to a vibrant expatriate arts community, where she crossed paths with fellow NGV students Rupert Bunny and James Quinn. Rae continued on occasion, to show her work in Australia and gained recognition with inclusions of her work in the Old Salon, Paris and Royal Society of British Artists, London. Her work shows the influence of impressionist and post-impressionist concerns encountered in Paris at this time. Rae’s paintings en plein air, focussed not only on landscape but to the people of the area. In 1892, the Society of Friends of the Arts of Etaples was established, a group with which Rae exhibited. The NGV has recently announced the acquisition of Rae’s Young Girl, Etaples c.1892, purchased for $220,000, a record for her work.

Isobel Rae, known as “Iso”, her nickname a somewhat familiar word to us today, as was her likely experience of isolation. At the outbreak of World War I, the Rae family remained in Etaples, one of very few foreigners to do so.  Their mother was ill and passed away in 1916, the sisters continuing to volunteer in Etaples. 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, likely using whatever drawing materials and time were available to her – charcoal and pastel rather than oils; paper rather than canvas; night scenes because she was busy at work during the day. Her lively and compassionate drawings are now recognised as important historical and social documents, beyond their artistic merit. Nearly twenty men had been appointed Australian official war artists in 1918[2] and no women. Iso Rae was only one of two Australian women who documented the war for many years (the other artist was Jessie Traill who spent the war working in a military hospital).

The camp at Etaples was a place where Commonwealth troops  - British, Canadian, Scottish and Australian forces went 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 drew the camp with its soldiers in their various uniforms; the barracks; the hospitals; the prisoners, both German and allied; their accommodation; the horses; their training and recreation (football, cinema, theatre). These documents of the daily realities of war, rather than the horrors of front line, show other horrors of war - the grind of training; the suffering of the wounded; dealing with anxiety and boredom whilst waiting in holding pattern – to be called up, sent home, or waiting to die. Rae also drew the streets of Etaples, overrun now with soldiers, ambulances, the railway carrying troops and supplies to the Western Front. Etaples during the war was a place of transience, with so many comings and goings, the waiting, the constant farewells and the anxiety for an unknown future. There are also records of the harshness of the conditions; the cold; the crowding; the severity of the training, on top of the ever-present threat of attack – and indeed, Etaples experienced multiple air raids (the Rae sister’s house was bombed). Iso and Alison left France for England in 1932 with the rise of Hitler and Iso died in 1940 in Brighton Mental Hospital, perhaps the effects of war remaining with her.


[1] Two works : A Devil, Étaples 1915 charcoal and pastel on grey paper, 42.4 x 26.7 cm; charcoal, coloured chalks and watercolour on brown paper,  40.6 x 29.1 cm, Christies, Sep 2010, lot 6;

A Devil, coloured pencils and bodycolour, 35 x 26 cm Signed "Etaples", Christie's, Sep 1993

[2] See link to Australian War Memorial site for further details : https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/war_artists/ww1

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