“Curious for fish”: Mary Symonds’s Fish Watercolours 

In his Ibis article of 1925, Casey A. Wood recounted his fortuitous visit to a London dealer of objets d’art. Wood had gone in seeking “any old drawings or paintings of birds or other animals,” and, to his amazement and delight, he left with a brass-bound portfolio containing Elizabeth Gwillim’s bird paintings (works “by the hand of no mean draughtsman,” he noted). Gwillim’s birds had materialized because a salesman had happened to recall the birds’ presence and chose to root around in the cellar for them. While this clerk searched, however, Wood was occupied with a selection of other zoological watercolours, the first set that the dealer had proffered him.  

Tetrodon oblongus (Takifugu oblongus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-2-2.

This set was, per Wood, “a parcel containing about thirty small (10 x 14 in.) mounted and coloured drawings of Indian Fishes.” He described them: “Each mat bore an auctioneer’s (or dealer’s) printed number; a few were signed “E. G.,” and upon still more were written legends (that Sir Henry Drake-Brockman later translated for me as Urdu) of the native names of the subjects portrayed.” Although he didn’t grant the fish quite the same praise he had bestowed upon Elizabeth’s birds, Wood nevertheless purchased the lot, and they remain in McGill’s Blacker-Wood Library to this day. 

Given the initials, Wood must have postulated that the fish, like the birds, were Elizabeth’s work. Passages from the sisters’ letters, however, allow us to consider these images anew, shedding light on multiple aspects of the watercolours’ creation, including their attribution to Mary Symonds and connections with the local Indian people and environment.

In early 1806, Elizabeth told her mother about the sisters’ recent sojourn in the village of Kovalam/Covelong: 

I must therefore finish my account of our stay in the old Chapel, which I told you in my last letters we had visited. We spent nearly two months there, and I saw more of India than I ever have done before. We had the building shaded on all sides with sloping roofs of palm leaves, and the thick walls and roof defended us so well from the land winds that I attribute Sir Henry’s good health in a great measure to them. Covelong, or properly Comalam, was a settlement made by the Emperor of Germany, but the port and all were destroyed as the place was an object of jealousy both to the French and English who have their Presidencies on the Coast. The rocks and rivers are romantic as Wales, though the hills are not lofty, and the place is abundant in rarities. It is particularly curious for fish. There are fish to be found in no other part of the world, and had I not seen them I could not have believed that such or such varieties existed. There is every colour: red fish of every tint, green, purple, and yellow, and striped like the most showy flowers, many as if wholly composed of rows of jewels, rubies and topazes set in chains. Mary drew above thirty sorts, but that is a mere trifle––it would take an age to do them all. She intends to have sent home these drawings, but, as so many things were lost in the Prince of Wales, Dr. Anderson has entreated that she will let a native copy them before they go home, that they may not be entirely lost if an accident should happen. When that is done you will see them.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, no date; received in England February 28, 1806

Elizabeth’s letter gives us insight into the geographical context within which the fish watercolours were produced––“Covelong, or properly Comalam”––and suggests, too, that Mary was the artist.

Covelong, or Kovalam, is a village on the southeast coast of India, 40 kilometres south of Chennai and 11 kilometres north of Mahabalipuram. It was originally a port town developed by the Nawab of Carnatic, Saadat Ali, but it was taken over by the French in 1746, and then taken again by Lord Clive for the British in 1752. At that point, Clive destroyed the fort with the intention of preventing the French from re-taking it. 

Coromandel by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, 1753, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Interestingly, at least two things that Elizabeth mentions about the town remain true today. For one, the “Chapel” that she mentions could be Kovalam’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Shrine, extant and in use today (though, if it is the same chapel, likely refurbished). Various tourist websites refer to the ruins of a Catholic church on the beach which resemble an old Dutch fort. The ruins are probably, in fact, an old Dutch fort, described by the 1839 Madras Road Book as “the ruins of [a fort] belonging to the Imperial East India Company of Ostend, whose principal factory was at Covelong” (Appendix, 12). Interestingly, a similar reference surfaced in an edited collection of the correspondence of Henrietta Clive (wife of Lord Clive, Governor of Madras from 1798–1803). In 1802, Elizabeth wrote that “it was a disappointment that Lady Clive and her two daughters had left this place, as they also were very free and agreeable”––they seem to have met, if briefly. On a trip to Kovalam in 1800, Henrietta, her two daughters, and the girls’ governess (and artist) Anna Tonelli also stayed in an “old ruined Roman Catholic church,” dining at one end of the church and sleeping at the other.

In addition, Elizabeth was evidently impressed by the variety and quantity of the fish at Kovalam, comparing them to jewels in myriad hues and noting that painting them all would require “an age.” Given that the sisters’ time in Kovalam seems to have inspired Mary to paint this series of fish, it seems that Mary, too, was fascinated by the village’s abundance and diversity of fish. Indeed, Kovalam remains a fishing village to this day, hosting a vast fish market. One can even find current-day media in which the same fish that so compelled the Gwillims in 1806 continue to draw people’s attention today––videos of the sizeable “Serranus horridus from Mary’s watercolours, a fish now known in scientific terminology as Epinephelus fuscoguttatus and in common language as the brown-marbled grouper, capture up close its gaping jaw, glistening scales, and mottled colouring, freshly caught at the Kovalam fish market.

The fish paintings, then, likely offer a historical record of not only Kovalam’s aquatic inhabitants but also the fishing traditions of the village’s human inhabitants. Much as Elizabeth acquired not just information about her bird and floral specimens but also, crucially, the physical specimens themselves from skilled Indian individuals, so, too, did Mary most likely paint fish that she came across after they had been retrieved from the ocean by local Indian fishermen. From this album, thus, we might glean that Kovalam in 1806 was populated by flying fish and garfish, groupers and soldierfish, as well as infer that these varieties of fish were occasionally, if not regularly, procured from the water by Kovalam’s fishermen. The Madras and Environs Album (The South Asia Collection), a compilation of landscapes and figure studies mostly attributed to Mary Symonds, even features a painting of fishermen (below). Could they be from Kovalam? 

Fishermen, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.63.

In addition to disclosing that Mary was the sister responsible for painting fish, Elizabeth’s letter states that Scottish botanist James Anderson (1738–1809), who moved to Madras in 1765 and set up a botanical garden, had advised Mary to have her fish copied by an Indian artist. Whether the fish currently held in the Blacker-Wood Library are Mary’s originals or the copies done after her illustrations is difficult to ascertain. 

Platycephalus insidiator (Platycephalus indicus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-2-11.
Featuring Tamil species name in Urdu script, transliterated as “Urpāḳi.”

The inscriptions on some of the paintings––identified by Wood’s friend Sir Henry Drake-Brockman as “Urdu”––could indicate the hand of an Indian artist. The identification of the script as Urdu has been suggested, too, by Professor Pasha M. Khan, and Shyamal Lakshminarayanan has noted that a number of the inscriptions appear to be in Tamil, written in the Urdu script. Tamil is widely spoken in Tamil Nadu, the region in India of which Chennai/Madras is the capital; it is thus possible that these inscriptions were added in Madras, and so at the time of the watercolours’ production as opposed to later by, e.g., a collector elsewhere. Professor Torsten Tschacher has agreed that the inscriptions are Tamil words in Urdu script and has suggested that the writer was an Urdu, not Tamil, speaker; Professor Khan has also noted that Madras was a centre of Urdu publishing, which could factor into the use of Urdu script.

Myripristis murdjan, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-2-14.
Featuring Tamil species name in Urdu script, transliterated as “Kākājī.”

Are those select fish paintings that bear Tamil inscriptions ‘copies’ by an Indian artist, while those without the Tamil names are ‘originals’ by Mary Symonds? Perhaps. It’s also possible, however, that an Indian individual with knowledge of the local fish species contributed the Tamil inscriptions to the original watercolours. We know from the sisters’ correspondence that the Gwillims, with the exception of Mary, were engaged in learning the local languages. As Mary wrote in 1802, “All the other members of the family are becoming very learned in the oriental languages. Betsy is studying the Gentoo, Richard [Clarke] the Malabar, and Sir Henry the Persian.” “Gentoo” was a term for Telugu according to Hobson-Jobson, used especially in Madras. Elizabeth’s interest in botany was also partly inspired by her desire to understand the local languages (to which, she writes, an understanding of specific plants and their meanings is crucial), and Mary writes that, when Elizabeth received a new floral specimen (typically brought to her by Indian individuals), she “gets some of the native doctors to give her the common name, the Brahmins tell her the Sanskrit, and the books are consulted to find out the Linnaean names.” Clearly, the Gwillims––if primarily Elizabeth––had an interest in learning species names in the local languages, and Elizabeth frequently asked the local Indian people for their knowledge on the matter. It’s thus possible that they desired that Mary’s original fish paintings be elaborated with the species’ Tamil names.

Hemiramphus dussumierii (Hyporhamphus dussumieri), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-2-16.

Paying attention to both the means by which Mary may have gained access to the fish she illustrated as well as the potential source of the Tamil inscriptions on the paintings, we might begin to reconstruct not just the artistic practices of two British sisters but also the crucial context of historical southeast India and the local Indian people who enabled the sisters’ artistic and naturalist efforts. Mary’s fish, like Elizabeth’s birds, manifest the sisters’ desire to create a visual record of their new surroundings; the gem-like hues of the fish made them captivating subjects, and albums of images provided a means of collecting these creatures that were appealing but quite perishable. Indeed, collection––real or representational––was a common element of the colonial British engagement with India. Elizabeth notes of Lady Clive that “she delighted in this Country & made large collections of curiosities” (October 2, 1802), and the well-known Impey Album, commissioned by Elijah and Mary Impey from Indian artists, similarly collates local species in an illustrated compendium. Thomas Richards, inThe Imperial Archive, places this desire to order and assemble in the colonial context: as the empire expanded, “the British collected information,” sometimes taking the shape of accounts of flora and fauna, “about the countries they were adding to their map” (3). Although, then, a colonial artifact, this album of illustrations does still speak to how the Symonds sisters’ illustrative and scientific efforts were enabled by the contributions of Indian individuals.  In Mary’s fish watercolours as in Elizabeth’s paintings of birds, through the presence of Tamil inscriptions and the implicit context of the selection of fish available to Mary, we can identify the presence of Indian individuals and their knowledge and skill regarding the local environment. 

Holacanthus imperator (Pomacanthus imperator), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-2-18.


  • Arthur Coke Burnell and Sir Henry Yule, Hobson-Jobson: a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive, ed., William Crooke (London: J. Murray, 1903).
  • William John Butterworth, The Madras Road Book (Madras: Edmund Marsden at Asylum Press, 1839).
  • Henrietta Clive, Birds of Passage: Henrietta Clive’s Travels in South India 1798-1801, ed., Nancy K. Shields (London: Eland Publishing, 2012).
  • Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London: Verso, 1993).
  • Casey A. Wood, “Lady [Elizabeth] GwillimArtist and Ornithologist,” Ibis 67:3 (July 1925): 594-599.

By Hana Nikčević