"I am anxious to make some of you amateurs like myself" was Rae's plea to students at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts in 1855. He was referring to his experiments in photography, yet the word amateur hardly applies. Anything he turned his hand to he seemed to master and his interests encompassed both the business and cultural worlds. In his artmaking he was most concerned with "fidelity to nat
painter, amateur photographer, author and public servant, was born and educated in Aberdeen, Scotland. After receiving his MA from Aberdeen University in 1832, Rae studied law at Aberdeen and Edinburgh. He came to Sydney on 8 December 1839 as secretary and accountant to the short-lived North British Australasian Loan and Investment Company. In 1843 he was appointed Sydney’s first full-time town clerk, thus beginning a public service career that was to last fifty years. During this period he was, variously, city commissioner, secretary and accountant to the Sydney Railway Company, under-secretary for the Department of Works, commissioner for railways, chairman of the Board of Public Works and a member of the Civil Service Board, retiring from the last position in 1893.
Despite the demands of his busy professional life, Rae took a prominent part in Sydney’s cultural activities. In the 1840s he was vice-president of the Sydney Debating Society and a lecturer and committee member of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts. In 1845 the Sydney Morning Herald published 'The fancy ball’, his serio-comic description in verse of the Mayor’s Ball held at the Royal Victoria Theatre on 21 August 1844. Other literary works, which Rae printed and bound himself, include a blank-verse version of The Book of the Prophet Isaiah (1853) and Gleanings from My Scrap Book (1869-74). He wrote the text for John Skinner Prout 's two-volume Sydney Illustrated (1842-44), which was highly praised at the time as 'faithful in explanation, eloquent and graceful in its style’. He also drew its title-page illustrations: figure-studies of Aborigines which, like Rae’s other Aboriginal subjects, border on caricature.
As both an artist and patron of the arts Rae helped institute and organise the first exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in 1847 and lent several of his own paintings to it. Three oil portraits ( A Gentleman , A Lady , and A Young Lady ) attributed to Rae in the catalogue were stated to have been 'by Forbes’ in the Sydney Morning Herald 's review. Of Rae’s other loans, the Herald described View of the Domain and Macquarie-Street, Sydney as 'sketches from nature’, Sunset and Landscape as 'after Prout’, The Porteus Mob, from Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian as 'from a print’, and attributed Willoughby Falls to Prout. Rae owned a large collection of Prout’s drawings, lending seventeen to the 1847 and 1849 Sydney exhibitions. He also owned and exhibited paintings by G.E. Peacock , Lucy Havens , Conrad Martens and William Nicholas .
In the 1850s Rae became a keen amateur photographer; a large album of his calotypes (salted paper prints) is held privately. In a lecture on photographic techniques delivered at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts in 1855, he said: 'I am anxious to make some of you amateurs like myself’. In 1870 he was one of the photography judges at the Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition. His technological and artistic interests were combined in the large panoramic watercolour sketches – from 6 to 13 feet (1.82 to 3.96 m) long – that he produced of Newcastle (1847), Wollongong (1851), Valley of the Upper Murray from Welaregang [sic] Station (1857) and Sydney Harbour from the Macquarie Light House (1859). To ensure 'absolute fidelity’ to nature all were made with the aid of a camera obscura he had constructed. These views were displayed at the Calcutta International Exhibition in 1883 and again at the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition. The Turning of the First Turf of the Railway in New South Wales, at Redfern (1850), accompanied by W.M. Cooper’s drawing of the same spot thirty-three years later ('marvellous progress’), was also in both exhibitions, together with contemporary photographs of Newcastle ('wonderful advance’) and Wollongong ('not very marked’).
To accompany Rae’s views sent to the Melbourne International Centennial Exhibition the New South Wales commissioners published a booklet of extracts from laudatory reviews of 1883, Mr. Rae’s Sketches of Colonial Scenes in the Olden Time (Government Printer, Sydney 1888). A selection from his hundreds of watercolour views of Sydney in the 1840s was photographed and issued as an album in 1893. His regular use of the camera obscura gives them an impersonal, almost mechanical, character, a quality praised as evidence of his reliability as a faithful recorder of 'the olden time’ before photography. By 1883 Rae’s panoramas were considered to be 'well worth preserving among the pictures in our Art Gallery, not only for their excellence, but as records of our colonial life and progress’.