Iso Rae was one of only two Australian women artists who were able to depict the First World War at close quarters. Rae was not an official war artist, but produced about 200 pastel drawings while working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Cross (VAD) in the large army camp at Étaples from 1915-1919. The drawings reflect a woman's unique perspective of the activities of men at war; not of direct front-line action, but of the everyday events behind the lines: preparing for battle, caring for the wounded, keeping the prisoners occupied and entertaining the troops with football games, films and live theatre. The Memorial owns eleven of these quiet drawings, each of significance both aesthetically and from a social and historical viewpoint.
Born in Melbourne, Rae trained at the National Gallery School with George Folingsby; her fellow students included Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and John Longstaff. She moved to Paris in 1887 with her family and in 1890 joined the artists' colony at Étaples, while continuing to exhibit her paintings in the Paris Salons. When the First World War began, the Rae family were the only foreigners to remain in the town.
Strategically sited near the coast, Étaples became the largest army base of the war, serving British, Canadian, Scottish and Australian forces. It was a training and retraining ground for forces about to enter battle; a depot for supplies; a detention centre for prisoners, both allied and enemy; and administered several large hospitals that served the wounded from the Somme battles. By 1917, there were 100,000 troops camped among the sand dunes, and the hospitals were able to deal with 22,000 wounded and sick at any one time. Through the town passed the railways which carried troops and supplies to the battlegrounds of the Western Front.
Rae's drawings offer an insight into the support system behind the lines. They depict soldiers returning from the training ground, troops arriving, German prisoners at work, the football game and one of the large hospitals.
The regular patterning of tents and hospital buildings outlined in black, and the neat groups of soldiers, provide a feeling of order and calm; yet underneath lies a sense of foreboding in the continual preparation for battle. The hospitals are a reminder of the many casualties which regularly arrived at Étaples. The gouache highlights in the night scenes create a red glow, imparting an air of mystery. The night works are drawn on a dark grey textured paper, heightening the sense of anxious waiting and the unknown. Through her unassuming, yet lively drawings, Rae has provided a rare glimpse into life behind the scenes of the largest war camp of the First World War.