Comparisons of Gwillim’s Birds

Elizabeth Gwillim’s watercolours of birds do not exist in a vacuum, but rather an established tradition of natural history illustrations, part of a 19th-century boom in publications about flora and fauna. Though the artists named here were prevelant earlier than Gwillim, their illustrations serve as a starting point for understanding her influences and then comparing her work so that we can better understand her place in this visual tradition.

George Edwards (1694-1773) was called “the father of British ornithology” and was a librarian, Fellow of many Academies, and natural history painter. He published A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743-51) a good five decades before Gwillim was painting in Madras, but he set the tone for the inclusion of firsthand accounts and accurate illustrations that we see in her work. See the sliding images below for a comparison of a bird that Edwards and Gwillim both depicted: a Sarus Crane.

Left: George Edwards, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds, Vol. 1, 1743, University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, Decorative Arts and Material Culture Collection.

Right: Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-038.

William Lewin (1747-1795) is another English naturalist and illustrator, whose seven volume series, entitled The birds of Great-Britain, with their eggs, accurately figured was first issued from 1789-1794 and featured hand painted, watercolour sketches. “Lewin’s ‘Birds of Great Britain’ surpassed any of these [Catesby and Edwards]… Birds of Great Britain’ is sometimes described as the rarest of all English bird books. In the example below, Lewin’s bird is an engraved illustration from his book, so compared to Gwillim’s watercolour, the medium strikes a distinction between these works. However, there is some similarity to be found in the placement of the tail and back feathers on both artists’ kestrels.

Left: William Lewin, The birds of Great Britain, Vol. 1, 1795, Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Ernst Mayr Library.

Right: Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-001.

Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) was a Welsh writer, naturalist, antiquarian who published books on the flora and fauna of Britain, Scotland, the Arctic, and India (despite never traveling further abroad than Europe). Most of the illustrations in his books were done by hired artists, as is the case with Indian Zoology (1790), which features this illustration of a spot-billed duck by Peter Mazell (active 1761-1797). Again, etchings don’t compare directly to Gwillim’s watercolours in terms of medium or execution, but this is a volume, or at least a person in the field, of which Gwillim would have heard and perhaps read, and learned a bit about the animals of her future home. Moreover, we can see how the inclusion of colour and the ability to add fine detail with watercolour paint can enhance the viewer’s understanding of the bird’s appearance.

Left: Peter Mazell, engraved for Thomas Pennant’s Indian Zoology, 1791, Smithsonian Libraries.

Right: Indian Spot-billed Duck (Anas poecilorhyncha), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-018.

Thomas Bewick (1753 – 1828) was an English engraver and natural history author who published A History of British Birds in two volumes: Land Birds (1797) and Water Birds (1804). These featured both large illustrations of the bird in question as well as smaller illustrations of flora, fauna, or country life that were designed to fit gaps in the text. They were called tale/tail-pieces, denoting both their narrative and zoological purpose. Bewick’s illustrations were woodcut engravings, following in the tradition of Mark Catesby and George Edwards, and therefore again have a fully different look from Gwillim’s life-sized watercolours. However, we know that she was familiar with Bewick, referencing him twice in her letters: once to name a specific bird (“I have seen two kinds – the Common white Owl of Bewick & the a small Owl”) and once to specifically request the second volume featuring water birds, which was published years after she had left for India (“I wish to have immediately Bewicks second vol: of British Birds which I see by the papers is come out. – do not forget it by the first opportunity.”) Below, we can see that Bewick’s cuckoo and Gwillim’s share a pose and expression despite the continued difference in medium.

Left: Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, Vol. 1, 1797, Getty Research Institute Library.

Right: Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-114.

Additionally, it is possible that Gwillim painted this starling earlier than her other birds, as it is stylistically unique from her corpus. Additionally, starlings are not frequently found in South India, but are very common birds in England. Perhaps Gwillim observed starlings at home in England or via Bewick’s book, and painted her version of the bird below earlier.

Left: Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, Vol. 1, 1797, Getty Research Institute Library.

Right: Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-112.

Sarah Stone (1760-1844) was an illustrator who painted a great deal of watercolours of specimens from the collection at the popular Levererian Museum in London. The owner of said museum, Sir Ashton Lever, advertised and displayed her watercolours in his museum, and she later was part of the creation of the catalogue for the collection. Gwillim might have seen her work there or at the Society of Artists and Royal Academy of Arts, where Stone exhibited paintings of natural subjects during the 1780s and 1790s.

Stone’s birds are easily compared to Gwillim’s in that they share the medium of watercolour. In the example here of a Green Heron, one can see that Stone pays attention to her feathers, but in a less refined and not so laboriously precise way compared to Gwillim’s work.

Left: Sarah Stone, “Green Heron,” album of watercolour drawings of birds, c. 1788, London Museum of Natural History Library and Archives.

Right: Striated Heron (Butorides striatus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-036.

This illustration credited to the Lucknow School (here dated c. 1775-1785, more generally placed at the end of the 18th century) is by an unknown artist, though it is known that it came from an album made for Claude Martin (1735-1800), a successful French serviceman to Nawab Asaf al- Daula. This work and the school from which it emerged are much closer to Gwillim’s own time, approximately 25-15 years before her arrival in Madras.     

Both Black Storks stand with their long toes touching, a detail that indicates observation of a living bird, as does the inclusion of the stork’s natural river habitat in both illustrations. In this comparison in particular, we can see Gwillim’s unerring attention to the colour and arrangement of the stork’s feathers. Another major difference, however, in this Lucknow piece, is that while Gwillim’s birds are located in their habitats, it seems the Lucknow bird is on its habitat instead.

Left: “Black Stork in a Landscape,” Lucknow School, c. 1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Right: Black Stork (Ciconia nigra), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-010.

By Saraphina Masters