In June 1986 an expert from Sotheby’s in London traveled to Bloemfontein to meet a farmer from the Eastern Cape, to view two paintings which the farmer said he had inherited. The expert could not gauge from the prior telephone discussions with the owner what exactly he was going to find. The owner said he knew nothing about paintings and had difficulty explaining what he had. The expert braced himself for the worst, expecting that the paintings would in fact turn out to be prints. He was however bowled over when in a small hotel reception room, the farmer unwrapped two of the most important paintings ever executed by the painter and adventurer Thomas Baines.
Both paintings are scenes of the landing of the 1820 settlers at Port Elizabeth and were commissioned in 1853 for another settler, the Reverend John Ayliff, the owner’s great-great-grandfather. After years of severe drought, the bankrupt farmer was looking for things to sell to enable him to make a fresh start.
On auction, the first painting “Landing of the British Settlers in Algoa Bay 1820 - Departure for the frontier” was bought by a private collector for R240,000, at that time (1986) the highest price ever paid for an art work in South Africa. The original now hangs in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, formerly the King George VI Art Gallery, in Port Elizabeth.The second, “The landing of the British settlers in Algoa Bay in the year 1820”, was bought by the King George VI Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth for R150,000. It is currently on loan to the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.
Weltz, Steven, Art at auction in South Africa, Donker Publishing, 1989
The 1820 settlers were unemployed British citizens whom the British government sponsored to immigrate to the eastern frontier of the Cape colony after the Napoleonic wars. Between April and June 1820, over 4,000 settlers arrived, in 60 different parties. The settlers were granted farmland around the village of Bathurst. Many settlers were artisans and traders who soon left Bathurst in search of a better life in the rapidly growing towns of Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown and East London, thus making a significant contribution to local business and the economy. Those who remained planted maize, rye and barley, and began the lucrative trade of wool farming, today a significant economic activity in the Eastern Cape.
Thomas Baines produced iconic pictures of colonial life in Southern Africa in the mid 1800’s and was the first artist to paint the Victoria Falls. He was a prolific traveler and visited most of Southern Africa and the northern part of Australia.
Born in King's Lynn, Norfolk in 1820, Baines left England for South Africa at the age of 22, and worked in Cape Town as a scenic and portrait artist. He moved to the Eastern Cape in 1848 and was appointed as the official artist to the Colonial Forces in the Gaika War of 1851-53. This provided an outlet for his artistic talent and thirst for adventure. Baines is today best known for his detailed paintings and sketches which give a unique insight into colonial life in southern Africa and Australia.
More than four hundred of his oils have been traced and scores more are in private collections. The diaries of his travels mark him as a superb scientific observer, but he was at heart an explorer and lover of wildlife who used his artistic skills to give the world an insight into what, almost two centuries ago, was still for many Darkest Africa. Much of his painting was done in moments snatched at the roadside. It was not uncommon for him to sketch wild animals from the saddle, becoming totally absorbed and oblivious to any danger. Today his pictures are in the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town , the National Library of Australia, National Archives of Zimbabwe, National Maritime Museum, the Brenthurst Library and the Royal Geographical Society in London. He is probably best known for his striking images of the Victoria Falls, painted over ten days in 1862.
In 1855 Baines joined Augustus Gregory's 1855–1857 Royal Geographical Society sponsored expedition across northern Australia as official artist and storekeeper. His association with the North Australian Expedition was the high point of his career, and he was warmly commended for his contribution to it, to the extent that Mount Baines and the Baines River were named in his honour.
In 1858 Baines accompanied David Livingstone along the Zambezi, and was one of the first white men to view Victoria Falls. Livingstone, after “discovering” the Victoria falls in 1855, mounted a second Zambesi Expedition in 1858, to explore from the Falls to the Cahora Bassa rapids. Baines accompanied Livingstone as artist and storekeeper, but the two men had a fall-out and Baines was asked to leave the expedition.Back in Cape Town, he linked up with explorer-hunterJames Chapman. The two men left from Walvis Bay in South West Africa (present day Namibia) and arrived at the Victoria Falls in July 1862.
For the next twelve days Baines explored and sketched the Falls before painting his famous ten Victoria Falls scenes, becoming the first artist to capture this great river wonder. Baines was skilled at portraying liquid.His brushwork is so detailed that it is possible for a botanist to identify the various types of vegetation depicted.The paintings were exhibited in Cape Town before being sent to London where, under the sponsorship of the Royal Geographical Society, they were published in January 1866.
The Victoria Falls paintings are justly regarded as Baines’ finest work. But the subscription list was meagre and instead of receiving profits, Baines had to pay for his presentation copies.Today seven of the original paintings are in the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Harare, two are in the Bulawayo Club in Bulawayo, and one is in the Royal Geographic Society in London.
In his final years, Baines obtained a concession to explore for gold in Matabeleland but failed to get material backing from his promoters. Whilst in Durban preparing his wagons for another visit to Matabeleland, he took ill and died on the 8th of May 1875. He is buried in the old West Street Cemetery, today known as the Brook Street Cemetery.