A bid to bring priceless paintings by a Norfolk explorer back to the county after decades “on loan” to an African country has been given a massive boost.

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Zimbabwe’s minister for education, sport and culture has spoken of his sympathies for the quest by former West Norfolk mayor Zipha Christopher to recover the artwork produced by King’s Lynn-born Thomas Baines from the African country.

David Coltart has also suggested that a compromise could be reached between Zimbabwe and the UK over the paintings and sketches.

The 40-plus items were sent out “on loan” in 1947 by the then King’s Lynn Council to the government of Southern Rhodesia, now part of Zimbabwe, but have never been returned to the UK.

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham spoke to Mr Coltart about the artwork on Tuesday in his role as a Foreign Office minister as they watched Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry attempt to defend her Olympic title in the 200m backstroke.

An artist and explorer

Thomas Baines was an English artist and explorer of British colonial southern Africa and Australia.

Born in King’s Lynn on November 27, 1820, he left England aged 22 for South Africa and worked for a while in Cape Town as a scenic and portrait artist, and as official war artist during the Eighth Frontier War for the British Army.

In 1855, Baines joined Augustus Gregory’s Royal Geographical Society-sponsored expedition across northern Australia as official artist and storekeeper.

The expedition’s purpose was to explore the Victoria River district in the north-west and to evaluate the entire northern area of Australia in terms of its suitability for colonial settlement.

In 1857, Baines was presented with the Freedom of the Borough of King’s Lynn.

In 1858, Baines accompanied David Livingstone along the Zambezi and was one of the first white men to view Victoria Falls.

From 1861 to 1862, Baines undertook an expedition to South-West Africa and his ‘Explorations in South-West Africa’ was published in 1864.

In 1869, Baines led one of the first gold-prospecting expeditions to Mashonaland in what later became Rhodesia.

On May 8, 1875, Baines died of dysentry at Durban.

Mr Bellingham said: “I’ve been doing a lot of work on Zimbabwe recently and had a very good meeting with Mr Coltart before going to the Aquatics Centre with him.

“It was there I raised the Baines pictures with him and he told me he know of the paintings and that he was very sympathetic to the cause to return them to the UK.

“He then said although his portfolio doesn’t cover the artwork, he thinks a compromise could be reached after next year’s elections.

“Whether this means we would be able to recover all of the pieces or have them loaned to us, I don’t know but I hope we would be able to reach an amicable settlement.

“I think there is a good chance we will see some, if not all, of these paintings in King’s Lynn again but there is still a long way to go and I don’t want to raise hopes unnecessarily.”

Zipha Christopher, who lived in Rhodesia as a child, begun her quest to recover the paintings in 2010 and said she still believes there will be national and international interest in the paintings should they return to Norfolk.

And with reports suggesting Mugabe will step down as president if his party loses his country’s elections early next year, she hopes the country’s new president might also be sympathetic to her cause.

“It has been quite a long process so far but I have been advised I might have a better chance of getting these paintings back once Mugabe has gone,” she said. “My only concern with this is – despite the fact he is nearly 90 - he could hang onto power for years and I have no idea who will come in after him and what they might think about letting us have the paintings back. You would hope, however, they would want to improve relations with the UK and this might be one way of doing so.”

This latest twist to recover the items comes after the oldest living descendant of Baines, John Youngman, vowed to personally write to President Mugabe demanding the artwork be returned.

The majority of the paintings sent to the government of Southern Rhodesia show off South Africa’s stunning scenery like Table Mountain in Cape Town. Relations between Zimbabwe and its former colonial ruler have been strained for years with President Mugabe denouncing Britain on many occasions and blaming it as the source of Zimbabwe’s woes.

As well as expeditions across Africa, Baines was also sent to Australia to join a quest to find suitable colonial settlement in the 1850s. He was also presented with the Freedom of the Borough of King’s Lynn in 1857 and died on May 8, 1875 from dysentery in Durban, South Africa.

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