Mary Symonds’s Pasteboard Models

In an 1803 letter, Elizabeth Gwillim mentioned to her sister Hetty that Mary had sent some drawings to England, and, “slight as they are, they are by much the best things I ever saw to give an idea of the people in the streets or roads here, in crowds & so various in their dresses.” These accomplished illustrations are likely the four street scenes from the Madras and Environs Album (South Asia Collection, Norwich), each of which depicts a row of Indian individuals and assemblages. Inscriptions on the paintings identify Brahmins and Pandaram priests, and other local features include a palanquin with four bearers and a reclining passenger, a white ox pulling an ornate cart, and a group of water buffalo being herded. Mary’s letters comment on these street scenes, too: “The carriages of the natives are extremely elegant, particularly the Hackery, which is drawn by milk white Bullocks,” she writes. “There is one in one of these rows.” 

Street scene, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.51.

These rows are fascinating, however, not simply because they allow us to glimpse how a Madras street may have looked in the early nineteenth century, but also because they evidence Mary’s experimental engagement with papercraft and optical spectacle. A letter from Mary, written in or before 1803, reveals that these watercolour rows were intended to be cut out and assembled together, forming a three-dimensional representation of a Madras street. As Mary writes to her sister of the rows, “I intended to make a great many more, & to fix them in a box, to represent a street… this method I invented to give you some idea of the population of this country, [as] they would then be about as thick, as the people are here in the streets.” Of the four watercolour rows extant today, one of them has been cut out––it’s possible that Mary cut it out herself, or that her sister Hetty started to put together the diorama as Mary described it. 

Cut-out street scene, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.54.

There are also two other examples of these pasteboard cutouts in the Madras and Environs Album: one, depicting a funeral group, is captioned “the tomb of Ali Hoofsein,” while another depicts five resting palanquin bearers. In October 1803, Mary also writes to Hetty that she has made some “memorandums” of a party and intends to turn them into a “pasteboard” “model.” 

Funeral group, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.30.

Of her intended street construction, Mary states that she has “invented” the representational method––a bold claim! But Mary’s asserted originality may not be too much of an exaggeration, as we can see when we explore her potential inspirations. 

We can start by assembling a model of what Mary may have had in mind for her cutouts, placing them, as she writes, in a box, close together, such that the arrangement is “thick” in the sense of a crowd on a street. We end up with something like this, reminiscent of a miniature theatre:

Model of Mary Symonds’s watercolours, 2020, Hana Nikcevic.

It first seems that the obvious point of reference for Mary’s concept is the toy or paper theatre, or “juvenile drama,” popular throughout England in the nineteenth century. Likewise, similar in their material, scale, and three-dimensional nature are paper peepshows, contemporaneously popular in England; in some cases, toy theatres and peepshows were likely produced by the same publishers. Toy theatres, however, are attested in England from around 1810, and paper peepshows appear to surface even later, around 1820. Both of these traditions in England thus significantly postdate Mary’s little theatre!

“Cendrillon,” Imagerie Pellerin, 1866 (Facsimile), collection of Eric G. Bernard,
from “A Child’s View: 19th-Century Paper Theaters,” Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Conn., 2010.

Although Dutch painter and art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten’s seventeenth-century perspective boxes are generally identified as the primary antecedent to most types of three-dimensional papercraft, the more direct predecessors to England’s nineteenth-century toy theatres and peepshows are likely German publisher Martin Engelbrecht’s eighteenth-century paper theatres or “perspective views.” These are small paper dioramas given the effects of depth and three-dimensionality by paper layers. Engelbrecht’s views, despite being prolific and evidently both charming and meticulously crafted, were not widely appropriated; he seems to have been the sole producer of such crafts at the time, which may be due to a royal decree granting him a monopoly on the production of perspective views. Conflicting ideas about the availability of Engelbrecht’s views in England, however, make it difficult to discern whether Mary could have come in contact with one. Historian of toy theatres George Speaight claimed that Engelbrecht’s views never made it to England, but art historian Frances Terpak suggests that they did, because some were printed with text in various languages, including English. With their diminutive size and paper layers, Engelbrecht’s perspective views, if they ever ended up in England, may have served as Mary’s inspiration for her Madras dioramas. 

Garden scene with dancers, to be used as the set for a miniature theater, c. 1740, Martin Engelbrecht, hand-coloured etching, via Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library.

But even if Mary did not chance upon an Engelbrecht view, she may well have seen an English play, the scenery of which––the wings in particular––could also have inspired her production of a three-dimensional, layered, painted scene. We know Mary to have painted in miniature in Madras, so producing diminutive representations of a life-size world was no unfamiliar pursuit. The scenery of the Georgian theatre was dynamic and integral to the performance; painted scenery demanded attention because it was changed, scene to scene, in full view of the audience. While painted backdrops stood at the back of the stage in layers, one behind the other, the primary visual effect of layering on the stage occurred at the wings, which consisted of various similar panels, one in front of the other, adding a sense of depth to the play’s scenery. A surviving model of Georgian layered scenery exists in these stage models by artist and Drury Lane set designer Phillip James de Loutherbourg. It’s possible, thus, that Mary took inspiration from the stage itself. Perhaps significantly, Mary writes, in early 1803, of being asked by Sir James Strange to sketch illustrations for a book translated by Sir William Jones, which was likely the Shakuntala, by Kalidasa, an Indian drama. The Madras Album contains an image labelled “Scene from a Sanskrit Drama” that may be one of these illustrations. As such, it’s possible that Mary was already accustomed to producing representations that recall the theatrical. 

Scene from a Sanskrit Drama, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.39.

Another kind of small-scale theatre was also engineered by de Loutherbourg: the Eidophusikon, opened at Leicester Square in 1781 and billed as a show of “Natural Phenomena, represented by Moving Pictures.” According to contemporary William H. Pyne, the Eidophusikon’s animation comprised dynamic lighting, transparent screens, and pasteboard cutouts. Considering these elements in conjunction with the format of de Loutherbourg’s model stage sets, we could imagine that the Eidophusikon also incorporated layering as a means of achieving a sense of depth and three-dimensionality; other modern-day renderings have interpreted it this way. It’s possible that Mary viewed or at least heard of de Loutherbourg’s contraption: we know her to have visited London, and we also know that Mary visited London’s Exeter Change, at which the Eidophusikon was exhibited in 1785 and 1786. The nature of the Eidophusikon as a miniature theatre, using pasteboard cutouts, transparencies and, thus, likely layers, could possibly have inspired Mary’s diorama. 

Integral to the Eidophusikon’s drama were its transparencies, backlit paintings done on translucent materials such as silk, allowing for dynamic lighting effects. These featured on advertisements for the show, and they served both as components of the theatre and as entertainment between scenes. Beyond the possibility of her having seen the Eidophusikon, however, we know Mary to have met with other transparencies, including during her time in India. Writing to Hetty in 1802, Mary notes that the “Free Masons’ grand Ball” was decorated with “festoons of blue silk, and painted transparencies”; in 1803, she writes, a farewell ball for Lord Clive also featured transparencies. Her mention of these visuals in a letter home suggests that she was fairly impressed by them, and they’re often one of the only elements of an event that she reports. Viewing these transparencies may have suggested to Mary the artistic potential to be found in layering images, in conceiving of images as not opaque, two-dimensional, and individual sheets but, rather, malleable components to be combined with other elements, all visible simultaneously, as we can see is the case with a diorama or perspective view.  

“Exhibition of a democratic-transparency, -with its effect upon patriotic feelings,” by James Gillray, 1799, via the British Museum.

Mary also offers no explanation of what a transparency is in her letters, making it clear that they’re a familiar sight to both her and her sister back home. Transparencies were popular in late eighteenth-century England not only as public entertainment but also as women’s genteel pursuits; Jane Austen mentions them in Mansfield Park, for example, as but one of many handicrafts engaged in by the Bertram sisters (in fact, she suggests that the sisters briefly experienced a “rage for transparencies”). It’s thus not unlikely that Mary crafted transparencies herself at home in England. Significantly in relation to the Madras diorama, DIY backlit transparencies were often produced through the layering of sheets of paper and cutting out of figures. Multiple papers would be fastened together, and then those areas of the image that were supposed to let more light through––such as a moon––would have more layers of paper cut away. As such, the cutting and layering of paper required for the production of a transparency is actually quite similar to the construction Mary had in mind for her Madras street scene view. 

As we’ve seen, there exist a few potential elements of visual culture that Mary may have, consciously or unconsciously, drawn on in her “invention” of the layered pasteboard diorama: Martin Engelbrecht’s miniature paper theatres, the layered scenery of the Georgian theatre, Phillip James de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, and the transparencies that she both saw in Madras and likely previously made herself. As Mary wrote, “I have been very busy in making drawings of the country, and, well done or ill done, I take care to make them as much like nature as I can by colouring them on the spot.” More than this, she also brilliantly sought to infuse her representations with the lifelike element of three-dimensionality. 

By Hana Nikčević