Originally one of a group of fifteen oils commissioned by the Hon. Guy Cuthbert Dawnay and painted by Baines in Durban between October 1872 and October 1874, the subjects taken from incidents on Dawnay's travels and from Baines and Chapman's Zambezi expedition of 1861-4. The present picture was painted to commemorate Dawnay's own journey to the Victoria Falls in 1873, and was worked up by Baines from his own comprehensive stock of images of the Victoria Falls first sketched on his and Chapman's expedition in July-August 1862.
Baines spent his first day at the Falls on 24 July 1862, beginning at the western end by Devil's Cataract, Cataract Island and the Main Fall, and would spend a week sketching here before tackling the eastern portion of the cataract. He made numerous descriptions of the views from the western end in his narrative, as well as remarking on the difficulties of working in watercolour while sat in a spray cloud:
'The moistened atmosphere to leeward of the spray cloud ... marked our near approach. and crossing with sodden shoes the stumps and half-fallen trees that obstructed our view, we stood at once fronting the southern face of the magnificent Victoria Falls. At the western angle, or just opposite us, and at the beginning of the ravine, a body of water fifty or sixty yards wide comes down like a boiling rapid over the broken rocks, the steepness of the incline, while it diminishes by a few feet the height of the actual fall, forming a channel for the reception of a greater volume of water, and allowing it to rush forward with so much violence as to break up the whole into a fleecy, snow white, irregularly seething torrent, with its lighter particles glittering and flashing like myriads of living diamonds in the sunlight, before it takes its final leap sheer out from the edge of the precipice into the abyss below. ... Then interposed a mass of cliff smooth almost as a wall, and certainly as perpendicular, its base projecting like a buttress, its summit crowned with grass and forest, kept ever dark and green by the spreading mist, and its dark purple front (deepened almost to blackness in the shadow by the northern sun) broken by a deep chasm, through which poured three smaller rills that might have been accounted grand had they not been dwarfed by the mighty mass beside them. A hundred yards more east commenced the first grand vista of the Fall, comprising in one view near half a mile of cataract, stretching in magnificent perspective from the three rill cliff to the western side of Garden Island. ... Now stand and look through the dim and misty perspective till it loses itself in the cloud of spray to the east. How shall words convey ideas which even the pencil of Turner must fail to represent? ... ... tell me if heart of man ever conceived anything more gorgeous than those two lovely rainbows, so brilliant that the eye shrinks from looking on them, segments of which rising from the abyss, deep as the solar rays can penetrate it, overarch spray, rock, and forest, till rising to the highest point they fail to find refractory moisture to complete the arch.' (T. Baines, Explorations in South-West Africa ..., London, 1864, pp.486-9). He returned to make his first sketches of the view on 26 July: Chapman and I went to the falls, and spent the day in photographing and sketching the chasm from the brink of the rock overhanging the rapid of 'leaping water' at its western end. ... The wind, the waving foliage, the drifting spray, and, above all, the impossibility of catching the detail of the rushing water, were sore trials to the photographer, and, to say the truth, not much less was the artist made to feel the incompetency of his power to give even a faint idea of the grandeur of the scene before him.' (T. Baines, op. cit., p.502).
A watercolour of a similar view taken in late July from this western end survives in the MuseumAfrica, Johannesburg, for which see R. F. Kennedy, Catalogue of Pictures in the Africana Museum, Johannesburg, 1966, I, p.78. B290, the same scene depicted in plate 4 in Baines's The Victoria Falls, Zambesi River (London, 1865).
The fourth son of the 7th Viscount Downe, Dawnay set out on his second hunting trip to Africa in March 1872, planning to hunt 'in the Amazarzi country' before returning to Natal and then going on to see 'the Victoria Falls of the Zambezi, and unexplored country beyond.' Dawnay, just 24, was on his second trip to Africa, having sailed out in 1870 on the same ship as the Rhodes brothers: 'Tall and athletic - the Zulus called him Madhluimshe, 'he who outstrips the ostrich' - he was a man of rare nobility of character, of wide and varied interests and with a zest for romantic and chivalrous adventure that his means enabled him to gratify freely. He would have liked Baines to accompany him to the Zambesi. Such companionship had never come Baines' way before.' (J.P.R. Wallis, Thomas Baines, Cape Town, 1976, p.212)
Dawnay recalled his meeting with Baines in Pietermaritzburg, and his commissions for pictures, in a letter to his mother ('I was lucky in Maritzburg in coming across Baines the Traveller, who did those pictures we saw at the Crystal Palace before I started here last time ... He's such a jolly old man, and has promised to do me 9 or 10 pictures of different subjects I chose, animals or that sort of thing ... He wants to go from the South and go look for Livingstone if the expedition just sent fails as he thinks probable. It was rare luck coming across him.') and again in volume 1 of his journals: '... having heard that Baines the explorer was in town having just come from the Gold Fields, I went and called on him, and stayed a long time finding out all I could about the route to the Victoria Falls, etc, and finishing by getting him to promise to do nine or ten pictures of animals chiefly - Eland, Buffalo, etc, etc - one of them to be a picture of my own adventure last time with a rhinoceros. As getting some of his pictures has been my very great wish for two years now, I think myself very lucky to have met him.'
The present picture is one of the last of his commissions, when Dawnay had returned from the Victoria Falls, reached in December 1873. He was back in Durban by mid-January 1874 and recounted that he 'went in the afternoon, and saw Baines, and found he had finished two more pictures for me and was in the middle of two others - all beautiful ones I needn't say.' and on 31 January reports further that 'Baines has finished two pictures he has been painting for me - a Koodoo and an Eland - and is going to do some more now, and I have given him some beautiful subjects.' (entries from Guy Dawnay's letters and journals quoted in Dr F.R. Bradlow 'The Private Journals of Guy Dawnay', Quarterly Bulletin South African Library, 48 (1) 1993, pp.32-44, and where Bradlow incorrectly located the picture to a private collection, Durban).
The Dawnay commission came towards the end of Baines' career at a time when he was beset with debts from the failure of the South African Gold Fields Exploration Company and had reverted to the practice of painting on commission and lecturing to raise funds. Baines died of dysentery in Durban on 8 May 1875. Dawnay went on to serve in the Zulu War of 1879, and in the Egyptian and Suakim campaigns in the 1880s, and was MP for North Riding between those campaigns from 1882-85. He embarked from Mombasa on an Emin Pasha relief expedition in January 1889, believing he might relieve Stanley's expedition, but was killed by a wounded buffalo while out hunting on 28 February (' THE LATE HON. GUY DAWNAY. Much regret has been occasioned by the sad news of the death of this gentleman, who was killed by a buffalo, while hunting in Masailand, East Africa.' The Illustrated London News, 6 April 1889). Ten of Dawnay's pictures including the present canvas were exhibited in the artist's native town in August 1975 (King's Lynn Museum, Thomas Baines 1820-1875: Traveller & Pictureman) and thirteen of the fifteen pictures commissioned by Dawnay were subsequently sold by his heirs at Christie's (Christie's South Kensington, 27 October 1982, lots 116-121 and 29 May 1984, lots 93-98; and the present picture, Christie's London, 22 October 1991, lot 56).