Who travels the Orient and brings the piano? Alexine does…

Who travels the Orient in the 1850s and 60s, with a piano, wrought iron beds, a mother, an aunt, five pet dogs and hundreds of servants?

There is no one quite like the remarkable Alexine Tinne….and nothing quite like her story…

Portrait of Alexine Tinne in the National Archives in the The Hague
Portrait of Alexine Tinne in the National Archives in the The Hague

Born in 1835 into a wealthy Dutch family, Alexine Tinne is a fascinating figure.  Her father died when she was ten, making her the wealthiest heiress in the Netherlands. She and her mother travelled the continent extensively, but arrived in Cairo in 1861, apparently running as far as possible from the attentions of an unwelcome suitor of Alexine’s. Mad with the contemporary obsession of searching for the origin of the Nile, they travelled from Cairo up the river into the Sudan to the frontier town of Khartoum whose primary reason for existence at the time  was the trade of ivory and slaves.

Undeterred by her surrounds and her dubious fellow Europeans, from there, Alexine launched an expedition to discover the Nile’s source. In 1862 hiring the only steamer available (upsetting Sir Samuel Baker who had wanted it for himself) and contracting several barges she and her long suffering mother  travelled extremely slowly and  in great  style, at times travelling with hundreds of servants and porters. Such numbers were necessary when one took the piano, the iron bed frames from Holland, five pet dogs, photographic and painting equipment, materials (including a bricklayer) to help build a house when one got to a suitable location and all the necessary food, crockery and silverware etc. Dozens of people were needed to pull the steamer and barges with ropes from the shore, when the waters of the Sud (as the boggy marshes of the Upper White Nile were known), prevented them from moving.

Wealth and luggage could not insulate her from the terrible conditions, however, and Alexine nearly died of fever on their first expedition as far as Gondoroko and her mother actually did die on their second expedition to discover the Bahr el Ghazar, the Sudan’s Western tributaries to the White Nile. Her two trusted Dutch maids also died on this trip, along with a distinguished botanist Hermann Steudner accompanying them. Her Aunt who had been waiting for their return died, again of fever, soon after Alexine’s return to Khartoum.

Alexine with her household
Alexine (centre) with her household

After these tragedies Alexine returned to Cairo where she set up a household of approximately 30 people comprised of Dutch servants and freed slaves. She refused to return to Europe. She had long planned to travel to see the famed Tuareg Arab Tribesman of the Libyan desert, and in 1869 aged 34  she set out, the first woman to attempt to cross the Sahara. Here her adventures were cut tragically short as her party was ambushed and  she was murdered by Tuareg tribesmen, the very men she had been so fascinated to meet. According to eye witnesses her hand was severed and she received a blow to the neck which caused her to fall to the ground and bleed to death. The rest of her party fled and her body was never recovered.

Alexine was an accomplished photographer, and had converted a carriage into a dark room back home in The Hague. She was also a serious botanical artist, and her detailed drawings led to the publication in 1868 of Plantae Tinnanae which had professional engravings based on her drawings.

But what intrigues me most are her sketchbooks. Dozens of watercolours of the places she went, the rooms she stayed in and the people she saw… I have only seen a handful of them, the rest are in the Historisch Museum in the Hague which I will go to in November.

Alexine's watercolour of pass
Alexine’s watercolour of a pass, from her sketch book in the Historisch Museum in the Hague

The few I have seen are delicately painted, calm, serene and convey nothing of the harsh conditions, the disease and the constant danger to which Alexine  subjected herself. This was a time remember, when women of her class were expected to be accompanied by a man to go in to dinner! To be in charge of a party which goes searching for the source of the Nile, and to attempt to cross the Libyan desert, is extraordinary.

Let me introduce you to the extraordinary Florence Baker…

Florece photo 1868-75 from images.rgs.orgThe story of Florence Baker has been hidden away in history behind the figure of her more acclaimed husband Sir Samuel Baker, England’s famous nineteenth century explorer of the White Nile…

Legend has it that Sir Samuel Baker, on a hunting tour of Eastern European the late 1850s, first set eyes on her as a beautiful sixteen year old in a white slave market in Hungary. He promptly bought her freedom; in return she became his life-long companion. They may (or may not) have married immediately in Budapest, either way, Florence was his inseparable companion. Whilst still in her teens, she travelled with Baker to the Sudan to look for the source of the Nile in the early 1860s. Her youth, reputed beauty, fluency in English, Turkish and Arabic, handiness with both pistol and rifle, bravery in withstanding native raids, skill with nursing and possession of enough physical and mental strength to endure years of hardship in killer conditions, make her an intriguing figure.

Having discovered Lake Albert and the Murchison Falls in Uganda, the pair were celebrated by Victorian society on their return home to England in 1865. Despite Florence’s incredible achievements, Queen Victoria refused to shake her hand, the rumours of her ‘past’ and unofficial marriage being insurmountable.

A vivid and detailed letter writer and diarist, Florence leaves no paintings or drawings for me to explore. Accounts of her endless sewing of tents, fashioning of uniforms for the soldiers that accompanied their party, making of practical costumes for her and her husband and papering the walls of their temporary homes along the White Nile with pictures she ordered from England tell us, however, of her practical abilities and strong sense of aesthetic.

Florence is the first adventuress into the Orient I came to know of, the first European woman to go up the White Nile into Uganda, and the beginning of my obsession with this subject…

Welcome to Painting the Nile…

Welcome to Painting the Nile as I chart the progress of my PhD exploring women artists and travellers in the Orient in the nineteenth century. The numbers of European women travelling to the Orient (a nineteenth century term for the area we now know as North Africa and the Middle East) increased greatly as the century progressed.

Egypt - Seton-Thompson, Grace (Gallatin) © The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Egypt – Seton-Thompson, Grace (Gallatin) © The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

Some women published their experiences in the popular genre of travel writing, other recorded their journeys in private diaries, letters and sketchbooks. A few were professional artists, although their paintings were invariably overlooked in deference to male artists; a consequence of the times…I’ll be doing a lot of detective work looking through auction catalogues, trawling through footnotes, and searching museum archives to find these paintings. They will be worth the search, as is evident in the beautiful, refined painting of Henriette Browne, a professional French artist who visited the Orient in the mid nineteenth century.

Fellah Nord Africaine by Henriette Browne 1867
Fellah Nord Africaine by Henriette Browne 1867