George Samuel, an eighteenth-century English landscape artist known for his picturesque scenery of rural England, taught Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds, and influenced their works. What did the two sisters observe and record of the Coromandel coast?

Soon after the family’s arrival in Madras, Elizabeth wrote to her mother:

The trees are large & tall & the whole place is like Parks & gardens with every beauty that can be found in a flat country.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, October 17, 1801

A banyan tree in a rural setting, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.12.

Madras grew around the British East India Company’s trading post of Fort St. George. However, the human settlements in their bucolic natural setting date back millennia.

Perhaps, observing the paddy fields, which are usually flooded, Elizabeth noticed:

Agriculture is carried on here in a manner just the reverse of your’s and so is Gardening, for as you raise beds for the vegetables & leave a sunk path to walk round them, here they sink the bed about a hand-breadth, & the path round is raised. This is in order to retain the water which is of course much exhausted in the day.

We have four rivers in this place, none of them navigable within some miles of this place, & then only for boats. They are very shallow streams, but broad when there has been rain & the banks rich with trees in many parts. They wind about the plain in a most irregular manner. . .. besides innumerable fords which being causeways well made in the dry season are quite safe, & we seldom go out to dinner without passing one, two, or three of these. These rivers run into the sea at this place, some of them come down the country 40 or 50 miles & they entwine the country exceedingly. The great beauty of this place is that if you quit the seaside, you have always a river on one hand or the other, or else a tank, by which you are to understand a Lake, partly natural but aided by art, the dams being carefully kept up. Some of these tanks are many miles long & are very fine pieces of water.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, January 23, 1802

Notice the presence and propensity of water in many of the works in the Madras Album. The three pictures below show a river’s edge, water ponds, large distant lakes, and the Adyar River.

“Pamala,” Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.19.
Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.23.
Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.25 (by an unknown artist).

Elizabeth mostly painted birds. However, in many of her paintings, she captures the tropical landscapes often populated with human activities, particularly in the background of the compositions.

For instance, behind the Nilgiri Thrush surrounded by jungle foliage are ruins and a soaring gopuram.

Nilgiri Thrush (Zoothera neilgherriensis), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-113.

In the background of the Yellow-wattled Lapwing is a mosque, perhaps with minarets, painted with the lightest of brush strokes and watercolour washes.

Yellow-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-050.

Elizabeth’s painting of a flock of an Intermediate Egret, who thrive on the shallow waters, can also be read as watercolour of a Hindu village situated at the foot of hills on the far shores of a lake with its rising gopurams.

Describing such scenery Elizabeth wrote:

The Pagodas rise amongst the trees & are shaded till you come near them. . .. They are of stone & richly ornamented with carved work, but the exuberance of foliage conceals all but the front. This gives them an air of solemnity that is a beautiful contrast to the general gaiety of the country: & the fresh verdure the constant shew of blossoms, the groups of people with their light graceful dresses & over all the bright clearness of the sky gives the whole place an air of cheerfulness that I have never seen equaled.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, October 17, 1801
Intermediate Egret (Ardea intermedia), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-035.

I have taken liberty to put together side-by-side two paintings by Lady Gwillim, one of a Caspian Tern (CA RBD Gwillim-1-071) on the left and a Brown-headed Gull (CA RBD Gwillim-1-021) on the right. Together their backgrounds seem to cover the entire countryside from the seashore to the hills and the space in-between. They include a tall ship in distance, coastal vegetation of palm trees, clumps of thick tropical foliage, some architectural ruins, rivers, and lakes and distant hills.

Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-071.
Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-021.

By Vikram Bhatt