Informants on the Natural World

Elizabeth Gwillim’s paintings from Madras are not only evidence of her own interests in the natural world, but they also visually showcase the great deal of information that she gleaned from locals and experts. 

For her paintings of birds, Elizabeth relied on bird catchers to bring her subjects to her. The birds were often still alive and required careful handling so that she could paint them.  Mary writes:

Poor Betsy is never out of trouble for if you gets dead subjects to draw from they become offensive before she can finish the work to her mind, & when the birds are brought in alive they stare, or kick, or peck, or do some vile trick or other that frightens her out of her wits, sometimes she thinks the birds look sick, that is whenever they stand quiet & then in a great fit of tenderness she lets them fly before they are finished, least thier [sic] sufferings should be revenged upon her or their ghosts should come flying round her & flapping thier [sic] great wings, scare her to death. These are serious troubles I assure you. But we do all we can to remedy such evils & have now got a venerable looking old Moor man who catches a bird at a time he holds them in proper attitudes or feeds these miserable captives in a proper manner, for her poor concience [sic] sake.

Mary Symonds to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, Madras February 7th, 1803

Mary goes on to describe the expert and novel (to them) manner in which this man secured a kite — a raptor with a 3 foot wingspan — with a piece of cloth, highlighting the level of knowledge and familiarity the bird catcher had with this bird, as well as with the natural world. The other bird catchers employed by Gwillim possessed similar skills, often blindfolding the birds to keep them calm. Mary depicted some of these men in her album of watercolours. 

Madras Album, The South Asian Collection, PIC106.66.

Mary tells us more of Elizabeth’s process and informants in a different letter, noting:

her [Elizabeth] present employments keep her quite happy I almost wish you could see her in her glory;  that is, with about twenty black men round her, a table full of books, the floor strewed with baskets of seeded branches of trees, and she herself standing in the midst with her cap snatched [?] to one side and talking away till she is quite fatigued.

Mary Symonds to her Mother, Esther Symonds, n.d.

The “venerable looking old Moor man” and the “twenty black men” were very valuable informants for Elizabeth. The former made it possible for her to adequately study her avian subjects so that she might paint them with the accuracy that characterizes her work. The latter group may have been providing her with their knowledge on botany. 

Detail of Cowslip primula veris, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-3-7/8.

In her botanical studies, Gwillim consulted with local doctors for the common names of the plants, Brahmins for the Sanskrit name, and then her books for the Linnaean classification before she drew them. Gwillim herself was learning Telugu, one of the native language of Madras, and she notes:

without some little knowledge of Botany it is impossible to read the Hindoo languages – Their allusions to particular plants which are essential to their different ceremonies are so pointed that unless you know the plants which Botany alone can teach you, the merit of the whole passage is lost; and after learning a little Botany it seems almost impossible to stop. 

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, March 6, 1805

It is clear that native Indian individuals and their knowledge were impactful informants for Gwillim’s growth as an artist and natural historian.

For more on this topic (specifically regarding botany) see Henry Noltie’s paper “Lady Gwillim’s Botany” and John Bosco Lourdusamy’s thorough response during a webinar posted on the Project’s YouTube page:

By Saraphina Masters