Rediscovered Depiction of Victoria Falls by Norfolk Explorer at Bonhams African Art Sale

The Kings Lynn-born painter and explorer Thomas Baines (1820-1875) was among the first Europeans to see the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river (on the border of present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe) when he and his travelling companion, the South African explorer and photographer James Chapman, arrived there on 23rd July 1862 during a two-year journey through south west Africa. Baines made numerous sketches of the Falls, one of which he later used as the basis of the oil painting, The Eastern Cataracts of the Victoria Falls, which is offered at Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in London on Tuesday 17 March. It is estimated at £150,000-200,000.

Thomas Baines was born in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, in 1820 and acquired his artistic skills while serving an apprenticeship as a coach painter. Aged 22, he left the UK for South Africa and spent the rest of his life abroad. He is best remembered for his contribution as official artist to the Northern Australian Expedition 1855-57 and Mount Baines and the Baines river are named in his honour. His work is held in several important collections including those of the National Library of Australia and the Royal Geographical Society. Baines died in Durban in 1875.

In 1852, David Livingstone had become the first European to reach the Falls, known to the indigenous population as Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders). He promptly renamed them, less evocatively, after Queen Victoria. Baines had joined Livingstone's second Zambezi Expedition in 1858 as artist cum storeman but was dismissed among accusations – hotly denied – of theft. (Livingstone was a notoriously bad man-manager and Baines was more interested in painting than looking after provisions, so it was probably a case of mutual misunderstanding rather than dishonesty).

Bonhams Director of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Giles Peppiatt, said: "This work, like so many of Baines paintings, had been hidden from public view for decades and was considered lost. One of the earliest depictions of Victoria Falls, it's a true masterpiece of topographical painting and an enormously exciting rediscovery."

Baines kept a journal during his travels. In it, he recorded his impressions of the Falls and the double rainbow he captured so magnificently in The Eastern Cataracts of the Victoria Falls. "Here one may stand on the very edge as on a pier of solid masonry and look not only into the dim intricacies of the mist-hidden distances – spanned over by a rainbow, glorious in its brilliant loveliness and forming, but for the small segment cut out by the shadow of the rock he stands on, a perfect circle, surrounded by another with reversed colours, fainter and more indefinite as it approaches the thinner spaces in the mist."

The finished oil painting was executed in 1869 at Margwe river Matabeleland to a commission from Eduard Mohr (1828-1876), a wealthy German trader, ship owner, and explorer. Baines – who was known for his ebullient self-confidence – depicted himself leaning over the edge of the rock just as he describes in his journal.

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