Port Elizabeth of Yore: Thomas Baines’s Painting of Cradock Place

The English artist, Thomas Baines, was a prolific painter as well as a prolific explorer, travelling extensively over British colonial southern Africa as well as Australia. Born on the 27th November 1820 at King’s Lynn in the United Kingdom, he died 55 years later on the 8th May 1875 in Durban. Baines was one of the greatest African travellers, his geographical coverage, variety of subject and prolific output far exceeded any other artist based in South Africa. It was during a visit to Port Elizabeth during 1873 and 1874 that he was to paint a picture of Cradock Place amongst others.

The commentary on the painting in this blog is derived verbatim from the thesis of Marijke Cosser entitled Images of a Changing Frontier Worldview in Eastern Cape Art, From Bushman Rock Art to 1875 which was submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts of Rhodes University in December 1992

Main picture: Cradock Place in 1873

A house in transition

The house which graced the landscape now adjacent to an industrial park on one side and middle-class houses of little architectural merit on the other side, by 1873 its walls could recount the numerous exalted colonial gentry which had crossed its threshold. The initial owner of this loan opstal in the 1770s was an inveterate iconoclast who flaunted conventions, Thomas Ignatius Ferreira, who would during the second British occupation of the Cape be banished from the town. The architectural style of the original building must have followed the style of that of the other Trekboers of that era with little stonework.

It was only the arrival of Frederick Korsten with his hand clutching a contract to supply the British forces in Mauritius with salted beef that the accommodation was suitably rebuilt to reflect that of a monied merchant of the pre 1820 settler era. Frederick Korsten had purchased the Loan Place “Papenkuils Fontein” in 1812 from Thomas Ferreira and in honour of a visit by the Governor, Sir John Cradock, he amended the farm’s name to “Cradock’s Town“, later to be better known as “Cradock Place“. There he erected a number of buildings: slaughter and salt houses, granaries, a tannery, cooperage, carpenter’s shop, stores, and two windmills, besides a “capital Dwelling House.”

The Mill at Crradock Place

For the purposes of grazing cattle, Korsten purchased the farm “De Gamtoos Riviers Wagendrift” of 3,000 morgen (about 856 hectares), on the Gamtoos River. At some stage after Damant’s marriage to Korsten’s daughter, Maria, did Tom acquire the farm from his father-in-law. It was registered in his name on 11th June 1819.

Cradock’s Town continued up to 1820 under the personal management of Frederik Korsten who advertised in The Cape Town Gazette on 17 June 1820 that the property was to be sold or let, as he was anxious to retire. On 25 July Samuel Eusebius Hudson announced that he had taken over Korsten’s premises at Cradock’s Town, but he seems to have been back in Cape Town by the end of 1822. By October 1820 Edward Damant had entered into a partnership with Thomas Pullen and they had taken over Korsten’s stock of cattle at Cradock’s Town. There is also evidence that Edward was at Cradock’s Town in January and August 1821, and also in December of that year. So it would seem that he took over some of Korsten’s many enterprises while his brothers John and Tom continued the farming operations at Lammas on the Gamtoos. John was definitely still at Lammas in May 1821. John Damant, husband of Maria Korsten, died at Cradock’s Town on 22 April 1825.

John Centlivres Chase would now enter the scene becoming firm friends with Frederick Korsten. It was also his widowed daughter which attracted his attention. Maria Johanna Charlotta Damant, was the only daughter of Frederick Korsten. On marrying Frederick Korsten’s daughter, Chase would take occupation of Cradock Place.

The significance of the painting

Marijke Cosser describes the painting as follows:  The painting above provides more than a depiction of rural life of the gentry but it also provides a telling glimpse of genteel colonial life at the home of the Resident Magistrate, John Centlivres Chase.  It was during one of these visits in 1873 and 1874, when that Thomas Baine would make several sketches for Chase’s daughters. He recorded that the “Orchards, despite the drought, were flourishing, the golden orange gleamed from among the dark foliage, the tall bamboo waved its feathery top, and the avenues of splendid date palm, from imported seed, imparted an Eastern character to the lower walks, nor was the interior of the dwelling destitute of attraction. The choicest engravings decorated the walls, ‘fricadeles’ [sic] and other Colonial delicacies graced the table, and the leg of a ‘giant ant-eater’ was thoroughly anatomised as if it bad been of veal or pork” Baines’s rendering of Cradock Place is in keeping with the elegant character of his subject.

Chase, himself a “Sunday” painter, describes the lifestyle Baines captured so well in his painting as follows: “… those delightful relaxations, picnics, particularly adapted to the delicious climate of the colony, under the most magnificent of skies, and amidst its untamed and luxuriant scenery, are frequently enjoyed, when childhood and age, growth and maturity, congregate for the purpose of recreation under the cool covert of some ancient fig or yellow-wood tree, on the banks of a sparkling rivulet, where mirth, music, dance and song are prolonged through the livelong day, and continued to a late hour beneath a dome-spangled chaste, but not cold, moon, whose light rivals in brightness the brilliant god of morn

Generally considered occasions for informality, “picnics” were an occasion for dressing up as far as the Chase ladies were concerned. Sunday-best bonnets, lace, crinolines and elegant glassware accompany the no-doubt equally elegant repast. A file of servant-waiters and waitresses appear in the slight gulley a little to their right. Chase, surrounded by members of his family, is depicted in a smoking cap and white jacket. He is undeniably the “king of his castle” (helped in no small degree by the “castellated” tower – a former mill – in the background). Three prettily dressed children, one holding a small bouquet of flowers, are grouped with their pedigreed dog in the foreground plane.

View of Cradock Place by Walford Arbouin Harries in 1860

Though welcomed as a visitor, Baines places himself between the two groups, again suggesting his role as an observer and his position as “outside” the groups. The plain-clothed governess similarly sits a short distance away, ever sober and watchful, social convention forbidding that she become too involved with the main group. Almost unseen, a “scruffy” dog rummages amongst the brush next to her: it would perhaps have been unseemly to place him next to the elegant little children! A sense of ease and harmony reigns in the picture, helped by the smooth, evenly spaced planes. The heads of the Chase family echo the knob-like aloes surrounding them, a device similarly helping the sense of rhythm in the picture. Horizontality is counter-balanced by the tower while the three tallest aloes mark the beginning and end of the foreground plane. Although the dark, stormy sky looming in the background lends itself to some philosophical interpretation, it is more likely that Baines was just indulging in some typically picturesque Eastern Cape skies. Baines would probably not have sustained the artistic interest he invested in the landscape had the sky merely been interspersed with some more “common” clouds. Alternatively, the rain-soaked clouds looming darkly help to offset some of the sparkling lights found in the picture itself thus increasing their brilliance.

Attempting to identify the family members in the painting, the author corresponded with a descendant, Gordon Chase, through whom it was established that in 1873, Chase was 78 years old, bis wife about 72, and his nine children alive at the time, ranging in age from 52 years down to 28. “It is therefore unlikely that the children depicted here are his. They are more likely his grandchildren. The dog I recognise from a photograph I have, taken at Cradock Place at about this time”, wrote Mr. Chase. Chase’s miller ground the corn on the estate until the miller was killed. The mill thereafter fell into disrepair. The homestead and the mill’s remains – shown as a castellated tower on the left – were lost when it became part of a suburb of Port Elizabeth, presumably Algoa Park.

Cradock Place in 1885

Cradock Place is of further interest as an example of Baines’s dramatic change in palette from, for example, Fort Selwyn. When one observes the contours along the aloes and the people in this painting, one still finds contrasting bands of light juxtaposed with darker colours.  However, they are much subtler in nature and tonal contrast than the chiaroscuro in figure 118. The author speculates that this, as well as a considerable lightening of his tonal values, might be attributed to the period when, between the years 1854 and 1862, Baines visited Australia and also sojourned for some time in “South West Africa” [Namibia].  His travels to these countries, where the light is constant, even and strong, possibly influenced him to reconsider the appropriateness of his European nurturing in “Old Master” tones. The succulent pearly lights, juxtaposed with the browns and ochres of the Old Masters, he perhaps realised, were certainly no vehicles for depicting the dry, dusty pinks and fawns of these brighter regions.  In Cradock Place, for instance, Baines’s tonality is more appropriate to the brightness of an Eastern Cape afternoon. Lighter blues and greens intermingled with tiny “blob-like” specks of cremes, whites and reds, along with small, Van Gogh-like brush marks (particularly in the grass in the foreground) remind one of a type of jewel­like impressionism. One is reminded, however, of some of Constable’s landscapes, where “sparkle” was achieved with flecks of impasto called “Constable’s snow”.

Another reason for the change in his tonality might be the rise of chromolithography in the 1860’s when the many possibilities of the coloured print were being discovered and explored. A well informed artist such as Baines would have come into contact with new developments in colour­

printing techniques and perhaps have been influenced by them.  However, one must not overlook. the fact that as most people mature, they gain confidence in their own methods and styles. An intelligent man like Baines was surely no exception and perhaps this maturity is being revealed by his breaking away from some of the “Old” European forms in which he had been nurtured?

Whether the reason was a broadening experience, the advent of chromolithography, increasing maturity, or perhaps an amalgamation of all three, there can be little doubt that his approach underwent a fundamental change in the latter 1860’s.


Images of a Changing Frontier Worldview in Eastern Cape Art, From Bushman Rock Art to 1875
Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts of Rhodes University by Marijke Cosser December 1992


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