Gouty stem tree, Adansonia Gregorii, 58 feet circumference, near a creek south-east of Stokes Range, Victoria River is an extraordinary image of an enormous water-yielding baobab tree. These trees are native to the north-west of Australia and are easily recognisable by their swollen trunks. The sheer scale of this tree, which dominates the picture, is further emphasised by the two figures at its base. The artist has depicted himself in the lower right-hand side of the painting, sitting underneath a makeshift shelter sketching the scene.
British artist and explorer Thomas Baines was one of a group of eighteen people who formed the 1855 North Australian Expedition party. The purpose of the expedition was to ascertain the existence of natural resources for settlement in the north-west of Australia and to determine if there was an inland river or sea. Under the command of Augustus Charles Gregory the expedition lasted from August 1855 to November 1856, the group reaching the mouth of the Victoria River on the upper north-west coast of the Northern Territory on 15 September 1855.
Baines’s official role in the party was as artist and storekeeper – he made hundreds of sketches, recorded weather conditions and kept a detailed journal of daily life. Along with ensuring stocks and stores were managed appropriately, he was expected to ‘record’ important sites, species, and events encountered on the journey. He did so with the English ‘home’ audience in mind: the scientific fraternity and the British government who had funded the expedition and were eager to invest in Australia and to encourage the expansion of the Empire.
Gouty stem tree, Adansonia Gregorii, 58 feet circumference, near a creek south-east of Stokes Range, Victoria River was painted in London in June 1868, thirteen years after the expedition. (A sketch for the painting of the baobab tree, held in the collection of the Royal Geographical Society in London, was made on Thursday 10 January 1856.) It is likely that Baines produced these paintings for the purposes of reproduction in the publication Australia illustrated.1
1 Tim Bonyhady, Australian colonial paintings in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1986, pp. 6–9.