Thomas Baines: artist-explorer

Text and images Robin Lamplough


If you have ever visited Durban’s West Street cemetery, you may have come across the grave of Thomas Baines, a nineteenth century English painter. He made a name for himself as an explorer in both Southern Africa and Australia. Baines, who died in Durban in 1875, had an interesting career at a time when Africa was being penetrated by European interests.

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Baines’s Grave: West Street cemetery Durban

Thomas Baines should not be confused with Thomas Charles Bain, the road engineer, who together with his father, Andrew Geddes Bain opened several important passes in the Cape Peninsula.

The son of a sea captain, he came from the ancient port of King’s Lynn in Norfolk, some 150 km north of London. In his teens he began painting coats-of-arms on coaches built by a local tradesman. Before long he had moved on to producing landscapes and other art works. He was a small man, just over 1.6 m (5 feet 4 inches in old-speak) and, as a result of a childhood injury, had a pronounced limp.

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Thomas Baines

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Thomas Baines 19th century selfie

To Cape Town

At the age of twenty, Baines moved to Cape Town, where he taught drawing for several years until the outbreak of the 7th Frontier War in 1846. That year he accompanied the troops to the front as a war artist, recording the expedition. He had an impressive professional discipline which he strove to impart to his students. He would immediately make a quick sketch of the subject and use water colours to capture the detail. Then, as soon as possible, he recorded in writing the main features of the sketch. And those preliminary notes would later become the basis for a work in oils.

The next five years saw Baines consolidating his artistic experience. In 1854 he was invited to accompany an expedition to Northern Australia as ‘storekeeper and artist’. There he produced many paintings now preserved by the Royal Geographical Society, as well as meticulous maps. Such was his reputation by that time that in 1857 he was honoured by being made a freeman of his home town, King’s Lynn. If he had resisted the lure of Africa, he might subsequently have had a noteworthy and profitable career.

With Livingstone to Zambesi

The following year, however, Baines was invited to accompany David Livingstone’s Zambesi expedition, again as ‘storeman and artist’. He produced the first paintings of the great waterfalls named for Queen Victoria and is said to have been the seventh European visitor to see the falls.

For personal reasons, however, the journey was less than successful. Baines fell out with Livingstone, who accused him of stealing sugar, or at best of mismanaging the expedition’s stores. Livingstone was generally held by those who knew him to be mean and spiteful to anyone who crossed him. But he was also, as a result of his explorations and his anti-slavery campaign, a Victorian icon. As a result, even some who could have testified in Baines’s favour were unwilling to risk Livingstone’s animosity. Baines returned to London and set up a studio there but his attempts to clear his name came to nothing.

Back to Africa

Between 1860 and 1863, Baines teamed up with James Chapman to explore the upper Zambesi. Chapman had learned the new science of photography and took some of the earliest photographs of African scenes. On their return to the U.K. both men published books on their travels in the 1860s. Soon after the appearance of his Explorations in South-Western Africa in 1865, Baines went back to Africa.

On this trip he painted many scenes in the territory later known as Rhodesia, including Matabele villages and Robert Moffat’s mission at Inyati, north of Bulawayo. Many of these were later purchased by the colonial government and housed in the national archive in Salisbury, now Harare. His Australian studies also were acquired by state authorities in that country. Baines made some important maps in Africa, many of them extensively used by novelist and unsuccessful ostrich farmer, Henry Rider Haggard. The artist also painted and described animals, birds and plants not previously studied.

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Chapman’s noonday photo of Baines – ‘Man with no shadow’

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White rhino hunt in Zululand

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Wagon at river crossing

And again

In 1868 he travelled to the Tati region of Matabeleland, representing a company exploring the region’s gold-producing potential. He was granted a mining concession by Lobengula, the Matabele ruler. This concession later became useful to Rhodes’s British South Africa Company, but Baines personally gained nothing from it. He then began writing The Gold Regions of South-East Africa but did not see it published because he died in Durban in 1875. It seems that he had fallen on hard times and was living with an aunt who ran a boarding house in the town.

Ironically, it was only after his death that his artistic ability received real recognition. Before that he was remembered as an accurate map-maker and observer of natural phenomena. Today, almost a century and a half later, there is, at my front gate, a stately tree with the botanical name Aloe bainesii. Few who see it, however, know that its name is recognition of his energetic work in recording the flora, fauna and natural features of this sub-continent.

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Aloe bainesii

About the author

Robin taught History for many years at Kearsney College. Since 2004 Jean and he have lived in a hillside complex at Waterfall, daily enjoying the quiet, the views and the wildlife. Robin is also a regular contributor of historical articles to a number of magazines.