He arrived in Cape Town and lived as an artist selling seascapes and views of Table Mountain but soon made plans to start exploring the South African interior. The Boers has only recently left the Cape Peninsular on the Great Trek of 1837 and travel in such vast, unexplored space would have been very challenging especially for Baines whose resources were limited. He wrote and illustrated a detailed diary of travels from 1846-52 through the Eastern Cape, Transvaal and Botswana and these journals were the start of a remarkable contribution to the history of Geography.
Klaass Smit's River, with a broken down wagon,
crossing the Drift, South Africa, 1852
After returning to Kings Lynn in 1852 Baines started to make connections with the RGS and Kew Gardens. It was a time when the world was opening up and there was great interest in his detailed record of travels in South Africa. In 1855 Baines was employed on the RGS sponsored exploration of the Australian interior (1855-1857) organised by Augustus Gregory. He was given responsibility for the stores which included taking an open boat from Northern Australia to Java and Timor to get fresh supplies.
© Royal Geographical Society with IBG
The success of the Australian trip led to a recommendation to join the next African adventure of Dr Livingstone along the Zambezi (1858-9). This relationship ended in acrimony when Baines was accused of stealing from the expedition stores. Livingstone had influential connections and the false accusations ended Baines career but did not prevent Livingstone from using his illustrations without attribution.
Journal of a journey into South African gold fields,
Transvaal and Matabeleland, 1869–1870
Baines returned to the Cape and was persuaded to join a privately arranged expedition to the Victoria Falls with his friend, the ivory trader Thomas Chapman. A record of this trip was published and a popular series of coloured lithographs of the Falls provided much needed income.
Baines lived the rest of his life scraping a living selling paintings and operating gold mining concessions. His mother was an enthusiastic promoter of his work and she organised exhibitions in Kings Lynn and sent samples to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales at Sandringham.
The British Settlers of 1820 Landing in Algoa Bay
Thomas Baines died of dysentery at the age of 55 in South Africa. He was highly regarded for the accuracy of his recording and there are archives of his work at Kew, RGS, South Africa and Australia. He painted what he saw at a time when so much was new and many of his works are the first record of species.
The President of the RGS said of him the following year:
“...He was a man of marked individuality of character,
a born artist and explorer,
a lover of wild life,
and skilled in all the shifts and resources
of an explorer's career.”
for my son,
who is 20 today
and will shortly set off
on his own South African adventure.
Inspired by the recent exhibition at the RGS
Hidden Histories of Exploration
John Thomas Baines
by Raymond John Howgego (2006)
Artist-Explorer of Australia and Southern Africa
by Jane Carruthers (2005)