Botanical Exchanges

In England, the Gwillims had close social relations with the Thoburn family. Frank Thoburn (d. 1790) founded a nursery at Brompton, Kensington in 1784, which was known for introducing exotic plants. His daughters Elizabeth (or Lizzie) (1783-1855) and Mary Thoburn were contemporaries and friends of Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds and are mentioned frequently in the correspondence. Botanical relationships overlapped with personal ones, Elizabeth Gwillim refers to sending seeds to Lizzie Thoburn as well as Indian fabric to make gowns for her and her sister.

The sisters were also close to Reginald Whitley (1754-1835), Frank Thoburn’s business partner who continued the nursery after Thoburn’s death and married his widow. Elizabeth collected seriously for Whitley, on occasion sending him living trees and seeds and she also relayed to him collections made by other botanists. Her contributions were cited in the celebrated botanical journal of the period – The Botanical Magazine or Flower-Garden Displayed, which began in 1787, and is the longest-running botanical magazine, commonly known as Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. The editor, Dr John Sims (1749-1831), praised both Elizabeth’s accurate and graceful drawings as well as her role as ‘the patroness of science in that Presidency.’

Two plants sent by Elizabeth Gwillim to the Brompton Nursery were featured in the Botanical Magazine.

Our drawing was taken at Messrs Whitley and Brame’s, Old Brompton, where it was raised from seeds sent over by the aimiable Lady of Sir Henry Gwillim, one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Madras, whose pencil delineates subjects of Natural History with unusual elegance and accuracy.

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Vol XIX, 1804.

For this plant we are indebted to Mr. Whitley, of Old-Brompton, who raised it from seeds sent by Lady Gwillim from Madras, under the name of the Seringapatam Hollyhock.

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Vol. XXIII, 1806.

The magnolia that Dr Rottler, Elizabeth’s botany teacher, named Gwillimia indica in her honour, was also featured in the magazine, but Elizabeth’s own watercolour of the plant, sent by Rottler to Sims, was not used.

We have been informed that some Botanists in Madras, considering the plant as a new genus, named it Gwillimia in honour of Lady Gwillim, the patroness of science in that Presidency…

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Vol XXV, 1807.

By Anna Winterbottom and Victoria Dickenson