The Often Ignored Thomas Baines

When political correctness meets Imperialism.
by Brooke Chilvers
From the September/October 2005 issue.



Herd of Buffaloes Chased Through the Macloutsie River,” an original oil on canvas, 20 x 26 inches,
by Thomas Baines (1820-1875). Courtesy of Sanlam Art Gallery, Bellville, South Africa.

The curator of Johannesburg's MuseumAfrica must have thought I’d lost my mind, breaking down in tears when she placed in my hands a recently restored, brilliantly colored oil painting by the too often ignored Victorian artist, explorer and natural history enthusiast, Thomas Baines (1820-1875). For almost 20 years the works that had fueled my greatest yearnings for Africa—and then Australia—I’d seen only as black and white reproductions in an old reprint of a Baines biography, and the rarely spotted originals were lackluster, dulled by dirty varnish.

Why—oh why—was there no permanent museum wing somewhere in southern Africa, London or Sydney that celebrated Baines’s dozens of awesome oils, watercolors and lithographs of Victoria Falls, its wildlife and flora? Or his scenes of traders and trekkers compelling their wagons and oxen across rough rocks and rivers into barely known lands? Or his revealing depictions of Khoikhoi herders, San huntergatherers and Xhosa families, as well as Hottentots and Hereros? Or the settlers’ neat towns and their windswept harbors? And yes, even of the bloody Eighth Frontier Wars (1850 – 1854) for which he was the official artist? Where are the displays of his 29 volumes of journals recording his detailed observations on the zoological, botanical, geological, meteorological, cartographical and ethnological details of so many of his works?

Why? Probably because of the politically correct “revisionist” view that interprets all exploration as imperialism, the collection of specimens as plundering, and the creation of infrastructure and trade as colonialism. As one critic would have it, the 19th-century systemization of knowledge—à la Darwin and Linnaeus to which Baines’s contributed— resulted in “natural history asserting an urban, lettered, male authority over the whole of the planet.” Classifying Baines’s artistic vision as an “imperial gaze” supporting British expansionism denigrates both his life and his work, as if Michelangelo were merely an adman for Jesus.

Baines himself, too, is not entirely blameless. In the journals of his contemporaries he is described as moody, obsessive, “a queer fellow” with personal habits as filthy as a pig. His mercurial behavior (possibly due to the mercury in the medicines of his day) not only alienated his travel companions, but his lack of financial skills coupled with the luck- lessness that plagued him also poisoned virtually all of his commercial endeavors. Needless to say, he never married and died broke.

But other equally driven and indefatigable icons out of Africa were worse fellows. Stanley was a brute, and Livingston—whom Baines accompanied on his 1858 Zambezi expedition to Vic Falls—was sullen, critical and insensible to the awesome wonders over which Baines gushed in both his art and words. In a life-crushing blow to Baines, Stanley fired him as Keeper of the Stores for theft (when it was more likely incompetence), which not only ruined his reputation but also ended his career as an official explorer for the Crown. But he masterfully fulfilled his perhaps greater mission as the expedition’s Artist to make “faithful representations of the general features of the country… drawings of wild animals and birds… delineate for the general collection… useful and rare plants, fossils and reptiles… draw average specimens of the different tribes.”

Another reason he is overlooked is that the working-class-born Baines sought acknowledgement (and upward mobility) as an explorer with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) rather than as an artist with the Royal Academy of Arts. Over a period of 30 years starting in 1842, Baines made eight great journeys into the wild places of Southern Africa, including a year-plus trek from Walvis Bay on the Namibian coast to Windhoek, across the Kalahari Desert to Lake Ngami in Botswana, then north to Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border. He presented his precisely detailed and annotated works to the RGS, Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew), the Royal Zoological Society, the Ethnography Society or the British Association for the Advancement of Science to be judged by scientists rather than to art academy exhibitions to be judged as art. (Although mostly penniless, he donated, rather than sold, specimens and collectibles to these esteemed but often ungrateful institutions.)

While figures like Robert Scoon, David Hume and Joseph McCabe made fortunes as ivory hunters (an estimated 90,000 kilos of ivory were exported in 1855 from the Transvaal alone!), and others, like William Cornwallis Harris and Roualeyn Gordon Cumming, made theirs as authors of hunting books, Baines did not have a hunter’s bone in his body; he would forget to load his gun and fall asleep during his nightwatch at a watering hole.

When asked, “What will you make with an elephant?” he replied, “Shoot him, if I can, and, if not, sketch him.” Still, he would skin-out an elephant and clean its skull, dig through the contents of a shark’s stomach, and not only sketch a dead female waterbuck, but also preserve its fetus—transforming all this knowledge into art. “He is very particular about his sketches which should have great scientific value. He makes several correct drawings from the dead animal, then studies their action and sketches from life,” wrote one traveling companion. Baines valued work- ing directly from nature to the extent that he signed many works “Sketched on the spot by Thomas Baines, F.R.G.S.” (Fellow of the RGS)

One wishes he had stuck to art, because hooking up with trailblazing traders in order to penetrate the African interior left him rustling oxen or repairing broken axles, while his pockets remained empty. To repay his debts resulting from his misplaced dreams of establishing a goldmine in Zimbabwe, he sought commissions, whose restraints he deeply resented, from the Cape Colony bourgeoisie, gave lectures, and published and illustrated dozens of articles in a time when people were esteemed “for what they had seen, collected or recorded.”

Maybe that’s what one likes best about his works: their narrative quality of showing human toils within spectacular landscapes, including the inherent drama of encounters with wild animals, as in Buffalo Hunt in the Rain Forest and Herd of Buffaloes Chased through the Macloutsie River. As taleteller, he emphasizes the “I was there” aspect by actually painting himself, or traces of his passage, into his works. In No Bengula the King-elect of Matabeleland he is not just present; his drawings of elephant and giraffe are tucked into the hut’s grass wall!

Although many of his watercolors show the spontaneity of translucent washes over pencil sketches (a convention of topographical drawing), many of his oils were done only years after the events. Baines’s oils testify to how carefully he planned his compositions, using trees to establish scale, and lighter and darker or “active and inactive” areas to locate the focal point or receding distances. Diagonal movement—burdened natives crossing rivers, wagons laboring down a mountain trail, agitated buffaloes charging across the canvas— is often a building block of his compositions, giving them a cadence that captures the eye. Yet there is a static quality to his scenes of tribal life, like A Damara Family Group.

In utter opposition to the vague, out-of-focus backgrounds of much of today’s wildlife art, Baines paid exacting attention to the accuracy of his color-saturated rhythmic brushstrokes and dabs that convey the multitude of textures and patterns of vegetation, rocks and rough seas. Although one can actually identify the various species of flora, they are part of a great animated African tapestry rather than mere flatsurfaced scientific studies.

Baines was utterly fearless of a brilliant palette of Winsor & Newston Artists’ Colours like Prussian blue, Venetian red, crimson, emerald green and chrome yellow. They communicate the harshness of African light even under the softer washes of his hazy skies. “I only wish I could deem myself able to paint nature as bright as she is,” he wrote.

Revisionists are probably doomed to interpret his scholarly renderings of nature “punctuated by human activity” as propaganda for expanding Great Britain’s economic hold and imposing its imperial culture on seemingly savage lands. True, Baines’s affectedly jolly, didactic writings do not disguise his sometimes shamefully racist attitudes. Unfortunately they say surprisingly little about his contemporaries, or his methods or philosophy of art. “The only merit I acclaim is that of being as faithful to the character of the country as my ability will permit.”

It’s unfair to underestimate Baines’s work just because his lifespan neatly coincided with the height of the Forward Ho! imperial spirit and the highfalutin’ Christian convictions typical of Victorianism. At his death of dysentery in his aunt’s boarding house in Durban, South Africa, the entire worldly estate of this daring globetrotter, son of a British merchant town on the Norfolk coast, was estimated at a paltry £211—minus medical and burial fees.

I hope there is a special place in heaven where destitute artists unapplauded in their lifetimes, like Baines and Van Gogh, can tune in from above to the results of recent Christie’s auctions; a place where food, comprehension and recognition are in abundance. And where there are no bugs to smear the paint.

Riding an elephant on Christmas Day just kilometres from Victoria Falls, Brooke raised a mini-bottle of Glenfiddich to Baines, who responded by inspiring her to write this piece.

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