Thomas Baines and the Great Tree Aloe
During research into the provenance of Charles Darwin’s vasculum (used on the voyage of the HMS Beagle), Glenn Benson, our Honorary Curator of Artefacts, came across this sketch of ‘The Great Tree Aloe of Damara Land’ by Thomas Baines (1820–1875).
Published on 31st August 2022
As a curator, I am forever interested in the histories of the artefacts held in the Linnean Society’s collections. ‘Linnean Lens’, our popular online series of deep dives into specific books and objects, recently featured Charles Darwin’s botanical collecting box (a vasculum), and I was curious as to how this enigmatic artefact came into our possession.
The Wynne connection
The vasculum was bequeathed to us by Brian Wynne (1848–1924) who, with his father, cared for the garden at the ‘The Mount’, the Darwin family home in Shrewsbury. Wynne became a Fellow of the Royal Horticulture Society in 1867, and went on to write for, establish and edit practical gardening magazines.
An important part of the vasculum’s story is an October 1925 letter in the Society’s archive (BL/7/22) from Brian Wynne’s daughter, Edith Mary Wynne (1873–1957). It details the items that her father wished to bequeath to the Society, though Brian Wynne was not a Fellow, so his decision as to why he did so remains a mystery.
The letter lists the vasculum (given to Wynne by Charles Darwin’s sister, Susan Elizabeth (1803–1866)), a book by Thomas Baines about his travels in south-west Africa, a photograph of him, and his sketch of the ‘Great Tree Aloe of Damara Land’. The latter items belonged to James Flood FRHS (1835/7–1890); a botanist who travelled with Baines in Australia, and who was later a friend of Brian Wynne.
Thomas Baines, explorer and artist
Born John Thomas Baines in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1820, he left the Norfolk market town at the tender age of 22 to South Africa, where he would work as a war artist. Also a skilled natural history artist and keen explorer, he would travel widely in southern Africa (perhaps most famously with David Livingstone (1813–1873) to Victoria Falls), and Australia, where he was the artist on Augustus Gregory’s (1819–1905) expedition of the Australian interior, from Moreton Bay near Brisbane, to Adelaide. Baines River and Mount Baines carry his name.
Baines was a prolific, if not profitable artist, with nearly 4,000 works attributed to him. His work also encompassed book illustrations, with several for Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869), including the famous plate ‘Ejecting an intruder’, showing a python being unceremoniously extracted from Wallace’s hut.
There are several biographies about Baines that recount his extensive travels through Australia and Africa. Thomas Baines: An artist in the service of science in southern Africa (1999) covers the life of Baines around the time the sketch of ‘the great tree aloe’ was undertaken.
‘The Great Tree Aloe of Damara Land’
This version of the image, with just a single ostrich, appeared as a plate to illustrate an article by Baines in the first volume of Nature and Art (1866):
I made the sketch which, without more artistic license than the interpolation of the solitary ostrich, is now placed in chromolithography before the reader (Baines 1866).
He recounts how, as he prepared to sketch the aloe, ‘I saw a troop of ostriches’. Being fearful of the powerful birds, he hid until the ostriches were scared off by approaching wagons. Baines records that the circumference of ‘the great tree aloe’ was almost 3.6 m, the crown was 4.5 m from the ground, and the canopy some 6.1m across. The ostrich, the tallest and heaviest living bird, can reach 2.7 m in height, and shows the scale of ‘the great tree aloe’; in the paintings it is dwarfed by the great plant.
During my research for this blog, I have discovered the incredible life of a man of whom the term artist is not quite sufficient. However, it should be recognised that the story of Thomas Baines took place against a backdrop of colonialism, and the exploitation of the people and natural resources in Australia and southern Africa. His artistic output captures some of this, but also provides us with lasting images of the magnificence of the places, people, flora and fauna of these two continents.
Glenn Benson, Honorary Curator of Artefacts
Baines, T. (1864). Explorations in South-West Africa: Being an account of a journey in the years 1861 and 1862. London: Longman.
Baines, T. (1866). Nature and Art. Vol 1. London: Day & Son.
Bolze, L. W. (1975). Thomas Baines Centenary 1875–1975:A tribute to South Africa’s renowned artist-explorer. Johannesburg Africana Book Society.
Stevenson, M. (Ed.) (1999). Thomas Baines: An artist in the service of science in southern Africa. London: Christie’s.
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