Gwillim’s Backgrounds

Elizabeth Gwillim’s backgrounds, though not the focus of her works, often contain rich details or telling indicators of the artist’s hand. Of the 121 known paintings held in the Blacker Wood Natural History collection at the McGill University Library, 56 feature elaborate backgrounds with accurate foliage and geography. 26 paintings have limited backgrounds with some environmental details focused around the bird in the center of the composition. 39 paintings have no backgrounds at all.

By looking at consistent traits in Gwillim’s backgrounds, when possible, the viewer can gain a better understanding of the artist’s style and method of representing the world.

In the fully realized backgrounds, many feature palm trees in two distinctive species/styles. Coconut palms feature longer fronds with individuated leaves and clear brush strokes (depending on how far into the background they are placed). Palmyra palms have more impressionistic leaves/fronds compared to the coconut and the brushstrokes a bit more abruptly impressionistic, or “stumpy.”

Left: Detail of coconut palm in Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-022.

Right: Detail of palmyra palm in Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-020.

Another relatively consistent feature in Gwillim’s fully realized backgrounds are buildings embedded and integrated into the natural landscape. One common type is the triangular pagodas/temples. These are painted in a segmented style, with distinct levels leading up to the flat top of the structure. There are other buildings in Gwillim’s corpus, but the pagodas are the most common and characteristic.

Native Indians appear in five of Gwillim’s backgrounds, and as such they are not a very common feature, but their presence is still worth noting, as these people are a key feature in her letters. Gwillim depicts most individuals far in the background, represented in simple, black lines. Those who are not simple silhouettes in the distance are shown shirtless with white bottoms and many with turbans.

As not all of Gwillim’s paintings have fully articulated backgrounds, there are certain features to those with only a partial background. The first is best described as a light, flat watercolour ground, featuring sketchy, horizontal brushstrokes that comprise a patch of sand, dirt, or water upon which the bird is standing. These are quickly made, likely due to a dearth of habitat details or time on Gwillim’s part.

Sanderling (Calidris alba), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-047.

The second partial background component is a cut-off tree branch with a smaller, protruding branch in a Y-type shape and some light, indistinct leaves or foliage. This perch for birds is not unique to Gwillim, and indeed early bird artists often utilized this simple format in the period of artistic development between blank backgrounds and fully realized ones. Considering Gwillim’s other works with elaborate, accurate backgrounds, this was likely a compromise used when the natural habitat of the bird was unknown, or when she was running out of paints.

Ashy Woodswallow (Artamus fuscus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-086.

By Saraphina Masters