The paintings of Thomas Baines contain a sense of mission and of history in the moment, which make them far more than just a description of the landscape
Words: Nick van der Leek
Pictures: Nick van der Leek and supplied
Have you ever wondered what our land must have been like in pre-colonial times, when vast numbers of wild animals roamed everywhere, and tall grasses, trees and bush luxuriated over endless plains? What was it like to travel through these landscapes, and see them first-hand alongside the waves and ripples of an expanding empire? Whether travelling alongside marching armies or on a lonely expedition, what was it that artist Thomas Baines saw or wanted to see?
I follow the English artist’s first footsteps in this country, under the growing shadow of war. Baines was an official war artist, and the company of a regiment of British soldiers conveyed him eventually to the garrison at Bloemfontein, of all places. I am soon looking for his view here, painted in 1851, over the early settlement founded in 1846 that would eventually become the Free State capital.
At that time there were about 15 000 Europeans occupying the Orange River Sovereignty. Most of these people had come from the Cape, as had Baines himself. He’d left Norfolk as a coach painter, and found himself aboard the Olivia bound for Cape Town, when 22 years old. Once there, Baines worked as an apprentice to a cabinet maker before graduating in 1845 to painting portraits, landscapes and marine subjects. Between 1848 and 1850 he found himself in the Eastern Cape, and from here made several expeditions up the coast and far inland. By the time Baines painted Bloemfontein’s beginnings he’d already been in the Colony for nine years.
Did this monumental Baines sky (in painting below) influence Pierneef? Baines’s expansive view from the vantage point of a local koppie is dwarfed by colossal, concentric sweeps of unfurling pink, and a grey thunderstorm swelling over an enormous flat plain. The observer witnesses the adobe and straw structures of the original inhabitants, as well as the hunters and the clatter of arriving ox wagons – all are being replaced by the beginnings of a new civilisation. Tents give way to farmsteads and churches.
A fire burns in the distance. A nearby vulture, just like the settlement itself, is about to take off. But besides the gold-green grass and the broiling summer sky, today everything in this Baines painting has disappeared in Bloemfontein. I can’t find any of it. There are no vultures penetrating the sky, and leafy suburbs and high-rises have replaced the gold, sometimes green-tinged grass. I decide to venture further afield in search of specificity.
Walvis Bay Flamingos
To get to Walvis Bay has taken me more than 23 hours (it is more than 1 800km via Ai-Ais from Bloem). Everywhere, in every direction, is a seemingly endless army of marching yellow dunes. North, nearer Swakopmund, I find Baines’s flamingos, as seen in one of the most subdued and beautiful of his paintings.
As I approach, a flock of them floats over stretches of sand and the serrated heads of brush, and their vivid tropical pinks stand out against the desertscape. In this instance, Baines has painted them standing still, a series of pale ghosts walking on stilts through the silent sands.
The idiosyncratic Welwitschia mirabilis proves to be far more elusive, however. The organism I’m looking for is endemic to the Kaokoveld, an extremely arid and isolated area. I have to travel along ephemeral water courses close to the Skeleton Coast to find these plants, and a jeep track to the Messum Crater (near Henties Bay) reveals a few beautiful specimens. In his welwitschia painting (dated 9 May 1861) Baines includes a team of oxen and two wagons in the background, and himself sketching the plant, with a tired guide retiring in the shade. It’s a beautiful image set between rugged ridges. While the welwitschia was first accounted for by Europeans in 1859, Baines’s illustrations – the first of this species – occurred just two years later.
It is while looking for this ‘living fossil’ that I begin to feel myself moving closer to the impressively black-eyed, black-bearded adventurer. Thomas Baines. Who was this guy? What made Baines immediately different from other artists, like Pierneef and Tinus de Jongh and even Claerhoudt, was the movement and intent, the ambition and bravado that took root in the world of his paintings. In a time when men were making history, and in the scramble for Africa, his energies were a match for all the adventures to be had. If Pierneef and De Jongh were trying to show idyllic (but empty) landscapes ready to be occupied by farmers and frontiersmen, Baines wanted to show the vigorous process of civilising, commercialising and Christianising the landscape.
Almost all of Baines’s landscapes aren’t empty – they are occupied by soldiers, stampeding animals and the natives. There’s also movement within the majesty of the wilderness. Baines is repeatedly trying to show the impact men were having, their efforts geared to transforming and taming wilderness into countryside, heathens into believers, and having the infinite unknown reduced to the meticulous recordings of the colonies’ expanding knowledgebase. While De Jongh’s scale of occupation was usually limited to a single homestead at a time, and Claerhoudt’s to the gentle pace of a man on a donkey, or a very small village, Baines renders entire armies on the march and settlements underway.
When Baines started off from Walvis Bay for Victoria Falls it was March, 1861, ten years after his Bloemfontein painting. And yet there was still, despite Livingstone’s two visits to the Falls in 1855 and 1858, no visual recording of the Falls. Baines aimed to be the first artist to show the Falls to the rest of the world. His road to the Falls was hot and difficult. For my part I discover that to get to the Victoria Falls from Walvis Bay, via Lake Ngami, means going further than all the way back to Bloemfontein. Yes, it’s another 1 700km on negligible roads, which is daunting enough in a car. For Baines it meant oxen pulling wagons through thick sand.
As I approach the malaria-infested Caprivi, I come upon thousands of mud and stick homes and some tiny straw huts dwarfed by the enormous arms and skeletal fingers of baobabs. I find many women along the side of the road carrying buckets on their heads. Baines encountered many of the same tribes on his travels when the country was known as Damaraland.
It’s a particularly wet season and Baines’s men struggled mightily with wagon wheels slipping and getting stuck again and again in thick sand and mud. Baines’s appearance at the Falls, finally, was in the company of an ambitious cattleman and photographer called Chapman. Chapman had intended to connect the West Coast of the subcontinent with the East, via a series of trading posts, but discovered Livingstone had beaten him to it. Chapman also very nearly saw the falls before Livingstone. When he was just three days away, the men he hired for the job chickened out because of their fear of a rival tribe in the area.
But this Chapman and Baines expedition was the first where the new technologies of photography were pitted against painting. Both men kept journals and commented on one another’s habits. On 22 July 1862, having slogged through sand and mud and mosquitoes for 16 months, they camped under a big tree. Throughout the night they heard a roar ‘like the dashing of mighty surf upon a rockbound coast’. The following morning, Chapman climbed the big tree to get a first view of Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders). Baines wrote that as they approached they saw ‘the water of the broad Zambezi glancing like a mirror…while from below its clouds of spray and mist nearly a mile in extent rose out of the chasm into which the water fell’.
The two adventurers had made it. Then began the job of recording the spectacle. The Falls was a challenge to both photographer and artist alike, as Baines attested: ‘The wind, the waving foliage, the drifting spray, and, above all, the impossibility of catching the detail of the rushing water, were sore trials to the photographer and, to say truth, not much less was the artist made to feel the incompetency of his power to give even a faint idea of the grandeur of the scene before him’.
The artist gushed over the double rainbows glittering in the rising spray. Baines described these bright rainbows as the ‘most lovely coup d’oeil’ (glimpse) the soul of the artist could imagine…’ Baines sketched on wet paper in the company of little honeybirds ‘dancing like gems over flowers’ and, in spite of ‘the persecutions
of the tsetse’, until sunset.
‘How shall words convey ideas which even the pencil…fail to represent… Think nothing of the drizzling mist, but tell me if [the] heart of man ever conceived anything more gorgeous than those two lovely rainbows, so brilliant, that the eye shrinks from looking at them… Scene after scene of surpassing grandeur…till the imagination is bewildered… I began to believe that no man but an artist can appreciate these wonderful falls…’
In another curious quirk of fate, Chapman’s equipment seized up – possibly due to the incessant moisture of the setting. And to make matters worse for the luckless Chapman, Baines’s mother would publish her son’s famous sketches before Chapman could produce any prints himself, as per their agreement. Here, art trumped photography, because Baines’s depiction served as the prime visual recording of the Victoria Falls for the next 30 years, and into posterity in the present day.
Baines’s sketches, notebooks, paintings and journals are very valuable today. At the end of 2012, the auction house Strauss & Co. sold a notebook estimated at R80 000 for R423 320. It’s sad that, while anything linked to Baines today is worth a fortune, the last years of Baines’s life were difficult. As a fifty-something he tried to pay off his debts by giving lectures at the Grey Institute in Port Elizabeth. He painstakingly worked on a book that included photos of his paintings, and died in Durban while doing so, aged 55.
His gold concession, which had been gathering dust, was snapped up by Cecil John Rhodes in 1889. President of the Royal Geographic Society, Sir Henry Rawlinson, gave this description of Baines: ‘Few men were so well endowed…for successful African travel, and perhaps none possessed greater courage and perseverance, or more untiring industry than Baines’.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful and appropriate places displaying Baines’s insights into pre-colonial life is within the quietly historic confines of the Castle in Cape Town – South Africa’s oldest building. More than 400 paintings are still in existence, with about the same number of sketches and watercolours.
The epilogue of Baine’s story isn’t without irony. Only in 1891 did a photographer – Zambesi Watson – manage to record the first images of the Victoria Falls. He was too late. The world had seized upon Baines’s paintings perhaps exactly as Livingstone (whose brother fired Baines from their expedition on an accusation of stealing sugar) knew they would. So perfect is Baines’s rendering that his work stands the test of time. His grand style and his versatile craft at painting movement manages to capture, after all, the atmosphere and drama of the roaring Falls.
Today, yes, Baines is everywhere. He was part of the fabric – the guns, the nails, the sails, the wheels and the paint – of an expanding empire. He travelled with armies and ships, cattlemen and the most famous explorers the world has known. He negotiated with chiefs, saw new countries, and kings being born and crowned, and introduced the world to new species (including a beetle named after him). He saw the Earth raw, before it was dug up and given over to war and commerce. If a man could do and see so much in the 19th century, how much more can we see and do in the countrysides of today?