Can we have our pictures back? King's Lynn plea to Zimbabwe

PUBLISHED: 15:00 08 October 2010 | UPDATED: 15:20 08 October 2010

Lynn artist Thomas Baines

Lynn artist Thomas Baines

A fresh bid has been launched to recover the paintings and sketches by a West Norfolk explorer that have been "on loan" to an African country for decades.

The pieces of artwork produced by Lynn-born Thomas Baines were sent to the government of Southern Rhodesia, now part of Zimbabwe, in 1947 by King’s Lynn Council.

There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to recover the 40-plus items over the years, but West Norfolk mayor Zipha Christoper is hoping for better luck in her quest.

She said: “My understanding is that the paintings were given as a permanent loan and I am not sure of the legal situation, but we would now like them back.

“I have made contact with the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies and they are trying to find out where these items are.

“It is possible the paintings might not be in a museum at all, but in storage somewhere in Zimbabwe. Either way, we want to ask if they need restoring or repairing and if they might send them back here.

“It would be brilliant if we could get them back during my year as mayor and I am working quite hard to achieve this.”

However, relations between Zimbabwe and its former colonial ruler have been strained for years. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has denounced Britain on many occasions and blamed it as the source of Zimbabwe’s woes.

Mayor Christopher, who lived in Rhodesia as a child, said that she thought the national and inter-national interest in the paintings would be “tremendous”.

Stuart Rangeley-Wilson, chairman of North-West Norfolk Decorative and Fine Arts Society, is on the hunt for more information on the whereabouts of the paintings and sketches.

He said: “I was schooled in South Africa and left Africa when I was 18. I still have friends who live in Zimbabwe and I have sent them 
e-mails and asked them to find out what happened to these items.

“I haven’t had any responses so far, but the probability is that they are sitting in a museum in Harare or possibly in storage.”

Dr Paul Richards, King’s Lynn historian and former mayor of the town, is excited that the pieces of artwork could return to Norfolk.

He said: “Every few years or so, someone says we should have them back and are unsuccessful in their attempt, but if the mayor does manage to get them back, it will be a great achievement.

“Thomas was the artist on some exciting expeditions across the then British empire and he painted the scenes as he came across them.

“He was painting scenes English audiences had never seen before and he was one of the first Europeans to see the Victoria Falls.

“He had wonderful artistic talent and his work still is of international interest.

“I guess Rhodesia wanted the paintings because they saw it as part of their heritage, but it would be fantastic if Zimbabwe sent them back.”

Fellow historian Julian Litten added: “Thomas Baines was an explorer in every sense of the word.

“He would have known he was going to parts of the empire which were unexplored and hostile and took his life in his own hands.

“The paintings currently in Zimbabwe are all landscapes and it would be an excellent achievement for the town to recover these items.

“They have enjoyed a long viewing in Harare and I would like them to be sent back, conserved and put back on display here.”

Alison Gifford, chairman of King’s Lynn civic society, has also said it would be “wonderful” if the paintings were returned.

She added: “There has been correspondence going back for years to get these items back and it will be difficult but it is important to try because they are part of our colonial history.”

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