Mary Symonds’s Portrait Miniatures

Early on in the Gwillims’ Madras sojourn, Mary Symonds took up a novel artistic endeavour: miniature painting. Although no surviving works are known to us, her letters allow us some insight. Mary wrote home about her occupation, and not without some trepidation regarding her reader’s reaction: “I must tell you how I spend a good deal of time; it is owing to a new acquirement which has brought me into great request here amongst my female friends,” she explained. “I am become a miniature painter (don’t laugh).” 

Don’t laugh: Mary Symonds to her sister, Henrietta “Hetty” Symonds James, March 18, 1802.

Perhaps painting miniatures failed to scaffold Mary’s status as an esteemed artist, but it certainly made her a popular one. “I have finished one Lady’s portrait, have two more in hand, and twenty petitioners praying to be drawn,” she reported. “But I don’t undertake gentlemen, for if I did I should not have breathing time.” Mary’s artistic pursuits thus formed an integral part of her social life in Madras; “We are in parties almost every day,” she wrote in 1803, and presumably her eager sitters numbered amongst the revellers.

I should not have breathing time: Mary Symonds to her sister, Henrietta “Hetty” Symonds James, March 18, 1802.

Mary was able to source most of her materials locally. Ivory was the typical support upon which portrait miniatures were executed; later, as watercolour became more popular as a medium, paper emerged alongside as a new––and easier, quicker, and cheaper––potential medium. Mary seemed to prefer ivory: ”I can buy plenty of ivory here,” she wrote, “and have got some charming brushes and white paint from China.” She mixed gum arabic in with her paints (but only later asked George Samuel whether she should be preparing the ivory surface with it, too). She needed a few more supplies, though: writing to Hetty, she requested “a dozen glasses for miniatures of different sizes” and, later, a few “fine, small brushes.” Portrait miniatures were often enclosed in metal lockets fitted with glass covers, which is likely why Mary asked for “glasses.” 

…charming brushes and white paint from China: Mary Symonds to her sister, Henrietta “Hetty” Symonds James, March 18, 1802.

Despite her enthusiasm for the genre, Mary’s opinion of the miniature-painting scene in Madras was not high. She initially requested that Samuel write her a letter expounding “all the secrets he can find out” about miniature painting, as she was unable to find a suitable teacher in India. When Hetty later asked that Mary send home some images of herself, Mary commented on the difficulty of the matter: “Here has not been any artist who painted miniatures for a long time,” she wrote, “and when anyone comes, though he be thought but a bungler at home, he expects an immense price.” But some of Mary’s earliest miniature paintings had been self-portraits, and she assured Hetty that her own portrayals of herself were just as good as those anyone else could produce: as such, Hetty would just have to wait until Mary was quite “clever enough” to produce a portrait she deemed good enough to send home. Here, Mary added a philosophical disclaimer: “To be sure, it is not easy to know one’s self in any respect.”  

To be sure, it is not easy to know one’s self in any respect: Mary Symonds to her sister, Henrietta “Hetty” Symonds James, February 7, 1803.

Hetty’s request is reflective of the context in which she wrote. The miniature was a crucial painting format in the context of Britain’s colonial endeavours. In the eighteenth century, British families and friends grew separated, dispersed across the vast geographies of the empire. As the East India Company solidified its position in India, more and more employees migrated to the country, with some, like Henry Gwillim, bringing along their closest family. Where today we might send off an email or post on our social media accounts to allow family abroad or back at home to stay updated on our lives, an eighteenth-century individual would reach out to their distant loved ones via a different visual communication medium: the portrait miniature. Miniatures were eminently portable, being both durable in the face of climatic variations and small; their diminutive size made them not only lightweight and wieldy but also exempt from export taxes (no small nuisance, it seems––already in 1802, Mary wrote of plotting “to cheat the Custom house officers”). The intimacy of the miniature’s small format underscores its relational function, too: it’s cupped in the hands, held close to the face, and sometimes worn––as jewelry––on the body.

Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Miniature, c. 1780, Thomas Hazlehurst. Cleveland Museum of Art, The Jane B. Tripp Charitable Lead Annuity Trust 2012.57.2. This miniature features a wonderful mise-en-abyme: the portrait worn by the sitter is another miniature by Hazlehurst. This woman thus receives a miniature depicting her lover, whilst her lover receives a miniature depicting the woman wearing a miniature depicting him!

A number of British miniature painters thus relocated to India, with the demand for overseas artistic communication promising gainful employment. Portrait miniaturist Ozias Humphry, for instance, stayed in Kolkata (then Calcutta) from 1785 to 1787; when miniature painter Diana Hill arrived in that same city in 1786, her immediate success worried Humphry: he stated that he would “rather have had all the male painters in England landed in Bengal than a single woman.” John Smart, meanwhile, worked in Madras, though he left in 1795, prior to the Gwillims’ arrival. Although Smart’s miniatures from India evince a delicate Rococo sensibility, his later miniatures, created after his return to England, exemplify the simpler Neoclassical mode that Mary’s miniatures are perhaps more likely to have displayed.

Two notable miniaturists in India were not only contemporaries of Mary but also possibly known to her: Anna Tonelli and George Chinnery. Tonelli was an Italian artist and worked as governess for the daughters of Henrietta Clive, Countess of Powis. She accompanied the Clives on their tour of India between 1798 and 1801, and, although Tonelli left Madras with Lady Clive soon after the Gwillims’ arrival, it’s possible that some of her miniatures stayed behind with Lord Clive, whose banquets we know that Mary and Elizabeth attended. Tonelli’s extant miniatures portray the Clive daughters.

Chinnery, meanwhile, arrived in Madras in December 1802 and stayed for almost five years. In an 1801 letter, Mary wrote of attending a “grand ball given by a Mrs. Chinnery,” and it’s possible that Mary was referring to the wife of George Chinnery’s brother, John, who also lived in Madras. The Gwillims’ travel companion, Richard Clarke, may also have been in contact with George Chinnery at some point; in 1832, Clarke presented Chinnery’s 1806 painting A Brahminy Bull to the Royal Asiatic Society, in whose possession the artwork remains today. Perhaps, then, during George Chinnery’s stay in Madras, Mary chanced upon some examples of his work.

Mary’s miniature-painting career seems to have been prolific, but it wasn’t without its obstacles. “I have not done any of the miniature painting in a long time,” Mary wrote in 1803. “I left it off partly for want of proper materials.” It seems that her initial concerns about the respectability of the occupation may also have proven founded: “Sir Henry said it was nonsense to spend my time drawing a parcel of foolish conceited girls instead of drawing natives & other things of this country, which my friends at home would want to see.”  Not to be deterred, though, Mary continues: “But when the things George Samuel has sent arrive, I will have another fit of it.” 

I will have another fit of it: Mary Symonds to her sister, Henrietta “Hetty” Symonds James, no date, 1803.

An interesting fact about the word “miniature”: It may seem logical to assume that the word “miniature” shares a root with the word “minimum,” seeing as both words today denote smallness. But while “minimum” comes from the Latin minimus, meaning least, the word “miniature” actually comes from the Latin minium. Minium was the red pigment used to decorate manuscripts by hand (prior to the 1440 invention of the printing press); the verb miniare first meant “to colour with minium” but grew to mean simply “to decorate a manuscript”; and, consequently, a miniatura was a manuscript illumination. Manuscript illuminations were, naturally, smaller than most paintings. So, likely alongside the pre-existing association of “mini” with “small,” miniatura came to denote any small painting and even any small thing. Miniatura entered Engish as “miniature” in the late 16th century.

By Hana Nikčević