25 Sep 2014 | By Sun International

Thomas Baines: Man of Art and Adventure

Long before the days of cameras and video recorders, the world’s explorers would paint, journal or sketch their surroundings, in an attempt to capture the essence of the regions they discovered.

Thomas Baines, a renowned English artist and intrepid explorer travelled through Southern Africa and Australia and is most famous for his intricate colonial and wildlife paintings. Born in Norfolk, Thomas Baines took to the easel at an early age, when he was apprenticed to a coach painter. At 22, he left England and traveled to South Africa, where he worked as a portrait artist in Cape Town and later went on to become an official war artist during the 8th Frontier War.

Documenting world discovery through art

Baines was part of an expedition to Australia as official artist and storekeeper; the team explored the Victoria River district and assessed the Northern region of Australia to see if colonial settlements could be established. It was during this trip that he became the first artist to paint the desolate “outback”, which can be seen in his work, “Emus on the Trap Plain”, painted in 1856. Because Thomas Baines contributed so significantly to this expedition and enabled so many people to comprehend the Northern Australia region, Mount Baines and Baines River in Australia are named after him.

Never content to stay in one place for too long and always eager to capture the delicate landscape over a new horizon, Thomas Baines journeyed with renowned explorer, David Livingstone in 1858, to discover the Zambezi River and the lands that lay beyond the river’s banks.

In 1861 he created “The Baobab Tree”, a watercolour painting that showcases one of the African continent’s most significant symbols. This cluster of seven baobab trees has since become a tourist attraction in its own right, known as “Baines’ Baobabs”. In 1869, Baines led one of the first gold prospecting expeditions to Mashonaland, which would later become known as Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe.

A deep, realistic insight into colonial life

With James Chapman, Thomas Baines travelled to South West Africa in 1861. It was this expedition and the intense journals that Baines wrote during the journey that became his book “ Baine’s Explorations in South-West Africa”, published in 1964. Using photography, painting and text, Baines outlined the journey and intricacies of the land as they explored what was then relatively unknown territory. Baines would go on to explore even more of South-West Africa, and continue to lead gold prospecting expeditions for quite some time. The Thomas Baines Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape is also named after this historically important artist. He died in 1875, in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Because of his vast yet intricately-created portfolio of work, Thomas Baines’ paintings and sketches are renowned works of art. His works have given generations beyond him true insight into what life was really like in the colonial settlements in Southern Africa and Australia.

Thomas Baines’ masterpieces are housed at a number of historical institutions in Southern Africa and abroad, namely MuseuMAfricA in Newtown, Johannesburg, and the National Library of Australia and at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.