Thomas Baines paintings at Bonhams

The Travel and Exploration Sale at Bonhams this week will feature two paintings by the British painter and explorer Thomas Baines (1820-1875), who became one of the first foreigners to reach Victoria Falls in July 1862, discovered by the Scottish missionary/explorer David Livingstone ten years earlier.

In 1858, Baines had been the artist on Livingstone’s ill-fated expedition to explore the navigability of the Zambesi. Both these experiences are represented by two important paintings by Baines to be offered at Bonhams on June 8. Teete, Zambesi River, S.E. Africa and The Victoria Falls from the southwest are estimated at £150,000-250,000 each.

'Teete, Zambesi River, S.E. Africa' by Thomas Baines
‘Teete, Zambesi River, S.E. Africa’ by Thomas Baines

The Norfolk-born Baines joined Livingstone’s second Zambezi Expedition in 1858 as artist-cum-storeman. The main purpose of the trip was to explore the navigability of the Zambesi from the east coast of Africa and to reach the Victoria Falls via the Kebrabasa Rapids. With the blessing of the UK government, Livingstone also had ambitions to develop the Zambesi province commercially (it was nominally administered by the Portuguese) and to end the slave trade.

By September 1858 the expedition had reached Tete, the last Portuguese garrison before the Kebrabra Falls at which point things quickly unravelled. The river proved unnavigable by steamer, dreams of commercial expansion evaporated and Livingstone – a terrible man manager at the best of times – blamed everyone but himself.  Baines was dismissed on the unsubstantiated grounds of dishonestly but remained in Tete until November 1859. Tete, Zambesi River, S.E. Africa was painted in 1866 and is a variation of an earlier work executed in 1859. The figures in the foreground carried in elaborate mashelas are probably wealthy members of the Portuguese community on their way to a wedding. Among the river canoes sits the expedition vessel The MaRobert which had proved so inadequate for the task of exploring the Zambesi. Baines got on well with the Portuguese and they reciprocated. Tete was a melting pot of different racial and social groups which Baines captures in his work.

The Victoria Falls from the southwest by Thomas Baines
‘The Victoria Falls from the southwest’ by Thomas Baines

The Victoria Falls from the southeast was painted on 23 November 1863 and is based on the many extensive sketches Baines made in situ. He had travelled there with South African trader-explorer and photographer James Chapman specifically to visit the Falls and paint the scenery as a commercial enterprise. The tiny figures of huntsmen in the foreground almost certainly depict the two men – who hunted both for sport (Chapman) and food (Baines) – rendered insignificant by the grandeur and might of the falls. After Baines and Chapman left the area, they fell ill and took refuge with the Anglo-Swedish explorer Charles Andersson at Otjimbingwe where the work was painted. In gratitude for their help Baines presented the painting to Andersson and wife, the details of the gift being recorded in the artist’s handwriting on the back.

Rhyanon Demery, Bonhams Head of Sale for Marine and Topographical Pictures said: “These wonderful paintings record significant periods of Baines’s life. His dealings with Livingstone left him depressed and angry but, liberated from any official artistic duties, Baines developed a freedom of style and a breadth of subject which can be seen to magnificent effect in Tete, Zambesi River, S.E. Africa and The Victoria Falls from the southwest and which makes his work so appealing to collectors.”