June 4, 2020

Expedition Exhibition: Picturing Africa – Illustrating Livingstone’s travels @natlibscot #Edfringe

2013 is the bicentenary of David Livingstone’s birth in Blantyre, Scotland. In celebration the National Library of Scotland is displaying part of their Livingstone collection, along with items from the archive of his publisher John Murray.

A contemporary quote suggests that many people bought Livingstone’s books mainly for the images and this exhibition focuses on the production of the illustrations and photographs. Livingston himself has some sketches in the show, but they serve only to demonstrate how much he needed the help of professional artists.


Thomas Baines was one of the artists who accompanied Livingstone on his expeditions, at least until they fell out – in part, it is alleged, because Baines used sail-cloth as canvas! Conditions – as is not hard to imagine – were not easy. He used off-white paper to reduce the glare of the African sun. At one point he writes exasperatedly, ‘Although an artist may work in wet shirt or shoes, he cannot work with wet paper’.

Dr John Kirk was not the official photographer for the Zambesi Expedition on which he travelled – that honour fell to Charles Livingstone, David’s brother. However Charles had little knowledge of photography and it is Kirk’s photos that provide the best record of the expedition.

As well as the artists’ images and photographs of Africa there are examples of the manuscript maps that Livingstone created on his travels. There are also images that show the colonial attitude to locals. One picture shows natives carrying the expedition’s belongings through a deep river. One porter is up to his shoulders in the water, whilst carrying a trunk on his head. A tricky enough situation you might think, but to make things more interesting the famous Henry Morton Stanley is pointing a gun at the man and saying, ‘If you drop that box I’ll shoot you.’

Livingstone himself wasn’t just an explorer. He campaigned against the slave trade and spread his Christian beliefs. He learned the local languages and published books to help others to understand them. When they ran out of ink they used wild berries to make a substitute. Livingstone’s relationship with his artists does not appear to have been straight forward. He was not afraid of outspoken attacks on their ability.

This exhibition is on until 3rd November and is an interesting introduction to Livingstone and his expeditions.

Until 3 November 2013

National Library of Scotland

George IV Bridge Building

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