An Artist of the Empire in Africa
The curator of Johannesburg’s MuseumAfrica must have thought I’d lost my mind when I broke down in tears before a recently restored, brilliantly colored oil painting by the neglected Victorian artist, explorer and natural-history enthusiast, Thomas Baines. His works had fueled my great yearnings for Africa and later Australia, but for almost 20 years I’d seen only black and white reproductions in an old Baines biography or a few originals hidden behind dirty varnish.
Why wasn’t there a permanent museum wing somewhere in southern Africa, London or Sydney celebrating Baines’ oils, watercolors and lithographs of Victoria Falls, its wildlife and flora? Or his scenes of traders and trekkers compelling their oxen and wagons across rough rocks and rivers into unknown lands? Or his revealing depictions of Khoikhoi herders, San hunter-gatherers, Xhosa families, Hottentots, Hereros? Or the settlers’ neat towns and windswept harbors? Or even his paintings of the bloody Eighth Frontier Wars (1850 - 1854), for which he was the official artist? And why no displays of his 29 journals recording his detailed observations on the zoological, botanical, geological, meteorological, cartographical and ethnological details of so many of his works?
Why? Political correctness is my guess—the modern-day 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 19 th century systemization of knowledge—à la Darwin and Linnaeus, to which Baines contributed—resulted in “natural history asserting an urban, lettered, male authority over the whole of the planet.” Classifying Baines’ artistic vision as an “imperial gaze” supporting British expansionism denigrates both his life and his work, as though Michelangelo had been merely an adman for Jesus.
But Baines himself isn’t entirely blameless. In their journals, his contemporaries described him as moody, obsessive, “a queer fellow” with personal habits as filthy as a pig. His mercurial behavior (possibly due to mercury in the medicines of his day) alienated his travel companions, and his lack of financial skills coupled with the lucklessness that plagued him also poisoned virtually all his commercial endeavors. Needless to say, Baines never married and he died broke.
But other icons out of Africa were worse sorts. Stanley was said to be a brute, and Livingstone—whom Baines accompanied on his 1858 Zambezi expedition to Victoria Falls—was sullen, critical and insensible to the awesome wonders over which Baines gushed in both art and letters. In a life-crushing blow to Baines, Stanley fired him as Keeper of the Stores for theft (when his crime was more likely incompetence), which not only ruined his reputation but also ended his career as an official explorer for the Crown. But as the expedition’s Artist he masterfully fulfilled his greater mission 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 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 presenting them to art academy exhibitions to be judged as art. (Although mostly penniless, he donated, rather than sold, specimens and collectibles to these esteemed yet 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, such as William Cornwallis Harris and Roualeyn Gordon Cumming, made their fortunes as authors of hunting books, Baines didn’t have a hunter’s bone in his body; he often forgot to load his gun and would fall asleep during his nightwatch at a watering hole.
When asked, “What will you make with an elephant?” Baines 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 also but 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 working directly from nature to the extent that he signed many works with “Sketched on the spot by Thomas Baines, F.R.G.S.” (Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.)
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 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’s most likable 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, Baines 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’s not just present himself, but his drawings of elephant and giraffe are also tucked into the hut’s grass wall.