Thomas Baines’ paintings of life on the Eastern Cape frontier artfully restored

Thomas Baines’ paintings of life on the Eastern Cape frontier artfully restored
Restorer Lucy Blumenthal at work. (Photo: Supplied)

Four artworks of Grahamstown done by the painter in the mid-1800s have undergone painstaking work to preserve them for future generations.

When conservator Lucy Blumenthal started working on a series of English artist and explorer Thomas Baines’ paintings of streetscapes in 1800s Grahamstown (now Makhanda), Eastern Cape, she was struck time and again by his incredible eye for detail. Even a poster on a tree has writing on it. I had to use my 10X magnifier to read it: “Victory”.

“In some places, you can still see his drawings and where he changed his mind and painted something different,” said Blumenthal. “The buildings were incredibly accurate in each of his paintings – and these were painted just before photography was invented. These are not only paintings, they are historical documents.”

Blumenthal added that the artworks were rare and not often seen.

“While I have worked on a Baines before, to work on four of his artworks at the same time was a treat. It is amazing to see how quickly Grahamstown developed during that period. I could see it in the changing landscapes depicted in the artworks and the progression in the materials used.”

Who was Thomas Baines?

Baines worked as the official war artist in Grahamstown during the 8th Frontier War (1850-1853) between the Xhosa and the British colonisers.

He is known for his detailed paintings and sketches that provided insight into life in a frontier town, and is also renowned for his botanical sketches. The Thomas Baines Nature Reserve outside Makhanda is named after him.

Four of his streetscape paintings, painted in 1848 and 1849, when he visited the town, show the streets of Grahamstown about 30 years after it was founded in 1812.

Details of an ox wagon in a painting by Thomas Baines before the painting was restored. (Photo: Supplied)

The paintings have been on loan to the town’s Albany Museum, the second-oldest museum in South Africa, since 1977.

A window into artistry

When they needed restoration work, their owner, Nedbank, stepped in to support this important project.  

“The Albany Museum extends its gratitude to Nedbank for restoring these artworks that have been the museum’s gems for decades,” said Dr Phumlani Cimi, head of the Albany Museum.

“We’re truly indebted to Nedbank for conservation work, which surely guarantees the long-term preservation of the artworks. These artworks provide a window into the artistry of the past century.

“They inspire a current generation of artists to create works in which nature is appreciated. Additionally, they make art lovers reflect on human activities that pollute and preserve the environment.”

To conserve the four paintings for future generations, Nedbank’s brief, Blumenthal was called on in 2022. Among many of her national and international projects, she has worked on the conservation of works by well-known South African artists Irma Stern, Alexis Preller and Pierneef.

“The paintings were actually very well looked after,” Blumenthal said from her studio in Ballito on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast, “but they are almost 200 years old. They needed a bit of TLC.”

She had worked on Baines’s paintings before, mostly ones depicting military battles. On examining the Albany Museum paintings, she said, it was evident that they had been restored before and had undergone work recently.

The largest one, known as Potter’s Row, Hill Street, had some overpaint and discoloured varnish that had to be removed, as well as some structural issues.

One painting had a tear that had to be fixed and with another a nail from the frame was causing damage to the canvas.

Learning about the artist

“I made some interesting discoveries,” Blumenthal said of her long journey to restore Baines’s pictures.

“He first worked with oil on paper that he later mounted on canvas. And then, when he probably had more money and wasn’t travelling so much, he was working on canvas in his later paintings.

“The painting titled Potters’ Row had three layers of canvas from the front. The one had a really coarse weave. I think that maybe he was experimenting.”

Blumenthal said she also saw this in his later paintings.

“I think he used paper as a core between canvasses.”

She added that the cracks she had seen in the paintings were indicative of paper used as a central layer.

Having the time and opportunity to restore these works gave Blumenthal great pleasure. “I had all four paintings in the studio with me at once. They were done close to each other in time and the frames then came later,” she said.

Lucy Blumenthal with a Thomas Baines painting. (Photo: Supplied)

“I really loved this project because often you do not get time to reflect. Because I was doing them all at once, I had to become so familiar with Thomas Baines’s work.

“My first passion remains museums and it was a privilege to restore these artworks to museum standards.”

A long-lasting legacy

The managing executive of Nedbank Retail and Business Banking, Ciko Thomas, said the bank believes that corporate art collections can play an important role in preserving and showcasing South Africa’s artistic heritage, as well as making art accessible to the public.

“We are grateful to the Albany Museum for having cared for these works for nearly five decades,” Thomas said.

“We value our longstanding partnership as it has made it possible for these rare works to be viewed by the community of Makhanda and its visitors. We are especially pleased to have them restored and preserved for current and future generations to enjoy.” DM

The artworks can be seen at the Albany Museum at 40 Somerset Street, Makhanda, Eastern Cape. The museum is open Mondays to Fridays from 09am to 4.30pm.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Get DM168 delivered to your door

Subscribe to DM168 home delivery and get your favourite newspaper delivered every weekend.

Delivery is available in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape.

Subscribe Now→

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.