The Gwillim Project

Coastal scene, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.78.

The Gwillim Project centres around the life and world of two English sisters in early nineteenth-century Madras (now Chennai), Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds. 

Elizabeth and Mary’s letters home and detailed drawings, produced during their stay in Madras from 1801 to 1808, provide an immersive portrayal of Madras under East India Company rule. Their correspondence and artwork also provide insight into the landscape, climate, and ecology of the Coromandel coast, documenting birds, animals, fish, insects, flowers, and trees. The sisters illustrate the lives of India’s human inhabitants, too, and their letters challenge assumptions about women’s work, interests, and social position in both England and India at the time.

Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-007.

The two sisters left a visual record of the landscape and inhabitants of Madras and the surrounding region through their paintings. Their original watercolours are presently held in two collections: Elizabeth’s birds and flowers, as well as Mary’s paintings of fish, are part of the Blacker Wood Natural History Collection at McGill University, Montreal, while both sisters’ landscapes and figure studies are held at The South Asia Collection, Norwich, UK, managed by the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection Trust (SADACC).