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NLA News - home October 2005 Volume XVI Number 1

Thomas Baines
Artist-Explorer of Australia and Southern Africa

click to enlarge
Thomas Baines (1820–1875)
Thomas Baines with Aborigines near the Mouth of the Victoria River, NT 1857
oil on canvas; 45.0 x 65.5 cm
Pictures Collection

Jane Carruthers looks at the life and work of a great 19th-century painter, cartographer and adventurer

When I first visited Australia in 1999, I had recently completed The Life and Work of Thomas Baines, a biography of the colonial artist and explorer, co-authored with art historian Marion Arnold. Some years earlier, in Thomas Baines: Eastern Cape Sketches, 1848–1852, I had focused on a single aspect of Baines’s career: his work in southern Africa. This book had been based on the rich source material in the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg, the Oppenheimer family’s renowned collection of rare books, manuscripts and art.

Being aware that Baines had been connected with Australia as well as southern Africa, during my 1999 visit I gave a talk about the artist and his travels to the staff of the then fledgling National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Following my lecture, quite a tussle ensued as to whether John Thomas Baines (1820–1875) was ours (South Africa’s) or ours (Australia’s)—all of us claiming ‘ownership’ of the man and his achievements. But we all agreed that Baines’s visual record of the shared colonial heritage of Australia and southern Africa had been seminal in determining how natural and social environments had been envisioned and constructed. We also agreed that the remarkable variety of Baines’s work and career was more important than had been acknowledged, and that it deserved to be better known.

click to enlarge

Thomas Baines (1820–1875)
The Welwitschia Mirabilis or Nyanka Kykamkop Plant of Hykamkop, South West Africa
oil on lantern slide; 6.0 x 8.0 cm
Pictures Collection

Following his Australian experience, Baines travelled extensively in southern Africa with trader–hunter James Chapman in the early 1860s. This image is in a collection of Baines’s lantern slides with his own annotated labels

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Thomas Baines (1820–1875)
[Madura proa, Java] 1856
watercolour; 7.3 x 12.9 cm
Pictures Collection

In the course of replenishing stores and provisions and fixing the expedition’s vessel, Baines spent some time in Indonesia. He was intrigued by the variety of indigenous craft that he saw 

The National Library of Australia’s holdings are a key resource in researching Baines’s life and work. The Library’s collections of documents, artworks and books focus on his exploits in Australia when he was part of Augustus Gregory’s 1855–1857 North Australian Expedition. In particular, within the Rex Nan Kivell collection, there is an unusual group of lantern slides which the artist used to illustrate the talks he gave in England on the expedition. These are carefully mounted in cedar-wood frames and labelled by Baines himself. There are also a number of delicate watercolours, whose subjects include landscapes and portraits as well as depicting the various maritime craft of the time.

The Library also has copies of Baines’s journals: the ‘Blue Jacket Journal’, a humorous illustrated broadsheet he compiled while travelling from England to Australia in 1855, and the record which Baines kept during the periods when Gregory placed him in charge of a detachment of the North Australian Expedition. An extensive collection of other material relating to this expedition also exists, including first-hand accounts by Joseph Ravenscroft Elsey (surgeon and naturalist in the party) and many items dealing with Gregory himself and the literature of exploration. The Elsey material is interesting because it consists of letters written both during the Gregory expedition as well as in its aftermath. Elsey for instance lamented the few opportunities there had been for zoological collection, because Gregory ‘steeplechased over [the country] at 15 miles a day’. Other major collections of material relating to the North Australian Expedition and to Thomas Baines are held by the Mitchell Library in Sydney, the Royal Geographical Society in London, the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Harare and MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg.

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Thomas Baines (1820–1875)
Native of N[orth] Australia, Victoria River, 1856
painting: watercolour;
12.3 x 7.3 cm
Pictures Collection

Thomas Baines was born in 1820, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, to a hard-working but relatively poor family. Trained as a carriage decorator, he found economic opportunities limited and sailed for the Cape Colony when he was 21 years old. For the first five years he was settled in Cape Town, where he plied his trade as a commercial artist. Here he soon became well known for his many attractive seascapes—both in oils and watercolours—featuring Table Mountain as a dramatic backdrop. To the young man, however, life in Cape Town soon grew tame, and in 1848 he headed for the Eastern Cape—to Grahamstown and its hinterland.

A rich daily account of his experiences and impressions there survives, because Baines, like many Victorians, kept a regular journal. For some months, being in extreme poverty due to the small demand for paintings in a frontier society, he wandered alone and on foot into the more remote parts of the colony, and recorded the culture and habits of the Xhosa people who offered him shelter and sustenance. During this period Baines accompanied a group of hunter-traders into the Transvaal and learned about the river systems and lakes in what was then referred to as the ‘far interior’—places such as present-day Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, which he was later to visit and record. Baines proved himself to be a careful visual and verbal observer of humans and places, and a physically resilient and emotionally self-reliant young man.

click to enlarge
Thomas Baines (1820–1875)
Group of Explorers with Horses, Northern Territory 1857
oil on canvas; 45.1 x 65.5 cm
Pictures Collection

In 1852 Baines returned to King’s Lynn. He gave a number of public lectures and exhibitions in his home town, where his brother Henry was making his own name as a local artist. Baines also went to London, to discuss with the Royal Geographical Society and cartographers like John Arrowsmith what he had learned about southern Africa’s ‘far interior’. The artist’s experience and field knowledge earned him the respect of the august metropolitan geographers he met, to the extent that Baines’s name was raised when the team was being assembled to accompany Augustus Gregory on an expedition across northern Australia, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. The expedition’s purpose was to explore the Victoria River district in thenorth-west and to evaluate the entire northern area of Australia in terms of its suitability for colonial settlement. The crucial issues were to investigate whether Stokes’s ‘Plains of Promise’ were, in fact, productive agricultural land, and to establish details of the region’s rivers and their courses.

In the event, although Baines did not accompany Gregory in the land party on the adventurous overland trip, his association with the North Australian Expedition was the highpoint of his career, and he was warmly commended for his contribution to it. He even had a river named after him. Baines was appointed as the expedition’s artist and storekeeper, but was often left in command as Gregory went off exploring with a smaller and more mobile mounted detachment. In the face of enormous challenges—including the unknown physical geography, an unhealthy and enervating climate, uncongenial and uncooperative companions, the fear of hostility from Aboriginal Australians, and the difficulties of provisioning stores and ships—Baines acquitted himself well. His principal contributions were in organising the stores, spending time in Java and Timor acquiring supplies, having the vessels repaired and refurbished, and finally returning personnel safely to Sydney by sea via the westward route, almost circumnavigating Australia in the process. Despite the administrative burdens of his post, Baines maintained his artistic output. Many of his images have subsequently come to exemplify the ‘Top End’, and are to be found illustrating numerous books that deal with this region.

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Thomas Baines FRGS (1820–1875)
photograph: b&w;
37.0 x 29.4 cm
Pictures Collection

Because of his excellent work in Australia, Baines was later invited to accompany the renowned missionary–explorer David Livingstone on a 1858–59 expedition to evaluate the navigability of Africa’s Zambezi River. In contrast with the Gregory experience, this was to prove disastrous for Baines. Livingstone was a difficult man to work with, beset with anxieties and insecurities. He was, however, the mostfamous Victorian explorer of his time—a promoter of geography, Christianity and Empire—and his name attracted funds and publicity for his patrons and the Royal Geographical Society. Livingstone’s image, therefore, had to be protected at all costs, and his reputation nurtured. When Baines was unjustly accused by Livingstone of theft and of carousing with the Portuguese at various trading stations along the Zambezi, then sent home in disgrace (not the only one to suffer this fate), he was not given the chance to defend himself publicly, and he was never asked to join another official expedition.

Baines returned to South Africa after the Livingstone debacle, and travelled in South West Africa (now Namibia) with James Chapman. His paintings of the Victoria Falls date from this time and are immense contributions to the artistic heritage of Africa, as are many of his other depictions of landscape, botany, zoology and people of the region. In the late 1860s Baines took charge of a prospecting company, and in this capacity travelled a number of times from Durban to the goldfields of Tati (near Francistown, Botswana), and explored gold mining opportunities in Zimbabwe.

Although there is considerable research material available on Thomas Baines, much of it still needs to be researched and made more accessible. His diaries of the North Australian Expedition, for example, have never been published in full. His artistic background in England requires further research, and more could be written about his scientific achievements. Baines also needs to be re-evaluated as an artist, rather than just as a recorder. His oeuvre consists of many thousands of sketches, watercolours and oil paintings, and they have much to illuminate on the nature of the colonial enterprise.

click to enlarge
Thomas Baines (1820–1875)
Native Canoe, Which Came Alongside from Prince of Wales Island, North Australia, Aug. 27th 1855
watercolour; 12.2 x 18.2 cm
Pictures Collection

His contribution to cartography is also under-researched, though a group of international scholars working on the history of colonial cartography has recently begun focusing on the maps Baines drew in southern Africa and in Australia. A CD–ROM has been produced, under the editorship of Professor Lindy Stiebel, digitising a priceless treasure of Africana—a fragile and very large (5 x 3 metre) manuscript map of the southern African goldfields which Baines drew in the late 1860s and early 1870s. For the first time, scholars and Baines enthusiasts worldwide have access to the map, which is accompanied by a series of interpretive essays. A similar project with Australian collaborators and partners will digitise the maritime chart Baines compiled of his voyage with two companions in the Messenger’s open longboat along the western edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Albert River—the intended meeting point with Augustus Gregory’s overland party in 1856. Artwork from the National Library of Australia will be included on this CD.

Unfortunately, Thomas Baines never achieved financial security. He died in poverty in Durban in 1875—of dysentery, at the age of 55. Today his paintings command high prices at auctions, and are treasured by art galleries and museums. Through the wealth of material gathered in such institutions as the National Library of Australia, we can better appreciate the extent to which he packed his life brimful of adventure and learning.

PROFESSOR JANE CARRUTHERS, from the Department of History at the University of South Africa, Pretoria, has been a regular visitor to the Australian National University, Canberra. She has been awarded Visiting Fellowships by the Humanities Research Centre (2005), and by the History Program, Research School of Social Sciences (1999 and 2003). In 2000 she held the Fred Alexander Fellowship at the University of Western Australia. Her email address is

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