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Monday, June 3, 2013

Thomas Baines

Baobab Tree, 1861, South Africa, Thomas Baines
Thomas Baines Self-portrait, 1858
Very few artists can claim the honor of having a river named for them. In the case of British artist, Thomas Baines, he has both a river and a mountain in northern Australia. If Thomas Baines were a working artist today he'd be employed by National Geographic, camera strapped to his torso, probing the jungles of Africa or the Australian outback. Oh, right, that's already been done. Thomas Baines has already been there, done that, way back in the 1860s. And though the camera had, in fact, been invented in that era, it was cumbersome at best and inadequate at worst. Thomas Baines eyes were like camera lenses; his easel and watercolors, clumsy as they may have been, were far more vivid and colorful than any film then known. Moreover he was the right man in the right place at the right time, adventurous, skilled, single, and without the added baggage of a shaving kit.
 
The Great Peak of the Amatola-British Kaffraria, 1851, Thomas Baines
Baines was born in 1820 in the Norfolk area of England (along the sea coast about 100 miles north of London). He apprenticed as a carriage painter, but by the age of 22 he was ready to strike out for parts unknown with an expedition leaving London for southern Africa. He worked in Cape Town painting portraits and landscapes, sharpening his skills, maturing, and learning the languages. His Baobab Tree (top) illustrates his considerable skill with watercolor. He also worked as a combat artist (though the term hadn't been invented at the time) in recording a prolonged, nasty little colonial conflict between England and the "restless natives" know at the Eighth Frontier War (above, there were nine, all total).

Emus on the Trap Plain, 1856, Thomas Baines
Then in 1855, Baines jumped at the chance to no longer get shot at while painting and joined a Royal Geographical Society expedition to explore northern Australia to and the Victoria River area. He was in charge of the ship's stores and painting what he saw. What he saw was pretty wild and spectacular. He was the first artist to paint the sparsely populate "outback" as seen in his Emus on the Trap Plain (above). So impressive were the depth and breadth of his depictions it was during this time he joined the queen of England in having important geological features named for him. This venture is considered the high point of his life as well as his art.

Victoria Falls, 1857, Thomas Baines

Matebele Warrior in Dancing Dress,
1870, Thomas Baines
By 1858 Baines was back in southern Africa but heading north to the Zambesi River with none other than the colorful British missionary/explorer, David Livingston (of "Dr. Livingston, I presume.") He was one of the first Europeans to view (and undoubtedly the first to paint) what the expedition called Victoria Falls (above). During this little hike into the wilderness, Baines was badly bitten by the gold bug. It was a feverish ailment he was to pursue off and on for the rest of his life. Artistically, his work became more anthropological, not to mention dramatic, as seen in his Elephants Charging over Quartos Country (bottom) from 1867. His Matebele Warrior in Dancing Dress, (left) from 1870, suggests his interests in African natives. Baines died in Durban, South Africa, in 1875.

Elephants Charging over Quartos Country, 1870, Thomas Baines,
presumably painted from memory.



 
 

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