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Image for the news item 'Smoke that Thunders ' on 30 Jun 2021
Plates [L-R]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7

Books in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection bear witness to the fascination of nineteenth-century armchair-travellers with places far beyond the familiar haunts of tourists to the Continent seeking out antiquities and picturesque beauty. There are books on the landscapes, peoples, and flora and fauna of regions from North and South America to China and Australia, and from the polar regions to Africa. Among the last is a rare book of superb lithographs: The Victoria Falls: Zambezi River (London, 1865). [Plate 1: ‘Leaping Water’ or Westernmost Cataract]

How astounding must these images have been to their early viewers, depicting with such meticulous detail this recently-discovered natural wonder of the world, known to those who live by them as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunga’ (Smoke that Thunders). Now known to be the most extensive sheet of falling water in the world, the Victoria Falls are nearly twice the height of the Niagara Falls and around half a kilometre wider. The titlepage records that the views were ‘Sketched on the Spot by T. Baines, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society’.  So many published views and tours of picturesque beauty since the eighteenth century had been billed as ‘Sketched on the Spot,’ and these views from Africa bring together a long tradition of admiration for waterfalls and vertiginous landscape views, but now transposed to a much less familiar context. [Plates 2: 'The Falls from the Westernmost End of the Chasm' & 3: 'Great Western or Main Fall']

Dead at 55, Thomas Baines, artist and explorer, was one of those intrepid Victorians who packed enough adventure and experience for a number of lifetimes into his own life. Born in King’s Lynn in 1820 into a family of both amateur and professional artists, he was apprenticed to paint coats-of-arms on the sides of carriages. But not for long. In 1842 he left for Cape Town, where he used his writing and painting to fund his exploring. He served as official artist-draughtsman to British forces in the Cape Frontier War (1851-2) and his work was used in the Illustrated London News. In 1855 he joined an expedition to North-West Australia, where the Baines river is named after him, and where he made a number of paintings. In 1857 he joined Livingstone’s expedition to the Zambezi, and his paintings of the journey were exhibited in London and Dublin. In 1861 he joined an expedition from South-West Africa to the Victoria Falls, and Emmanuel’s collection includes his Explorations in South West Africa (1864) recording this incredible journey. Baines surveyed the whole expedition route, collected botanical specimens for Kew, and made many sketches and paintings, including the originals for his book on the Victoria Falls.

Even today, glutted as we are with images, the draughtsmanship of Baines’s depictions conveys the awe-inspiring scale of the Falls and the sheer immensity of falling water. [Plates 4: 'Herd of Buffalo Driven to the Edge of the Chasm' & 5: 'Centre Rock Fall and the Eastern Cataract']. Relatively little of Baines’s prolific output of paintings and sketches was published in his lifetime, but he was one of the first to describe the regions of the Mashona and Matabele. His concern in these images of the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ to record in six or so views the whole extent of the Falls from the west to the east side shows his scrupulous commitment to truth of record. [Plates 6: 'The Falls from the East End of the Chasm to Garden Island' & 7: 'The Falls from the Narrow Neck near the Eastern Headland of the Outlet']. 

Thomas Baines died in Durban in 1875 while preparing for another long trip into the interior. He had certainly left those coats-of-arms on carriage-doors very far behind him in every way, and was among the leading topographical artists of the mid-nineteenth century.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

 

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