Sisters as Painters: Influence, Style, Attribution

Elizabeth and Mary were very close as sisters, but their creative pursuits had both similarities and differences. Elizabeth’s bird paintings at McGill’s Blacker Wood Library serve as the primary visual record for her work, while much of Mary’s creations reside in the Madras Album at the South Asian Collection in Norwich, U.K. In addition, their letters contain many details that paint a rich image of their relationship, such as nicknames (Betsy and Polly, respectively) and sisterly complaints that transcend any specific time period, such as Mary bemoaning that Elizabeth has used up all of their good drawing paper and she must now paint on letter paper (Mary to Hetty, March 4th 1805). Paint, such as that seen in this box from the period at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was also a commodity between the sisters.

18th century metal paintbox for watercolour paints, formerly the property of the miniaturist George Engleheart, Victoria & Albert Museum.

As far as current research has revealed, the two had the same artistic training. First, their draughtsman father Thomas Symonds likely taught them the basics. Then, George Samuel was employed to teach the medium of watercolours and perhaps landscapes, and both sisters mention him with frequency.

Tell him however that I thank him for all he has done for me & that his drawings are more than ever the admiration of all beholders.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, August 24, 1805

Mary sent Samuel some of her work, describing them as “two or three little scraps with a request that he will give me a little instruction.” (Mary to Hetty, February 12th 1806). It is in Mary’s request and other written references that we know the sisters felt a dearth of artistic instruction in Madras.

A Picnic Party by George Samuel, c. 1790-1820, Victoria & Albert Museum.

As it seems the sisters were not closely connected to the artistic community in Madras, they may have turned instead to each other. The letters do not mention any explicit anecdotes or telling details about how the sisters would have worked together, but the Madras Album may lend some visual clues. While the attribution process for this collection of unbound watercolours is still underway, there are multiple hands visible within. Moreover, duplicates of identical or similar scenes seem to have been painted by different artists, and so perhaps here we can hypothesize about the sisters’ creative process and potential overlap.

The two paintings below, which can be compared by sliding the bar across the image, have some compositional differences. The image on the right, thought to be by Elizabeth, shows mountains far in the distance as do many of her bird paintings. The image on the left, credited to Mary, contains depictions of drapery similar to other works by her in the album. What is most interesting, when considering how they might have painted together, is that the viewpoint of the image on the left is shifted to the left. This difference in perspective could be due to the sisters sitting side by side, and thus having slightly different views.

Left: Madras Album, The South Asian Collection, PIC106.19.
Right: Madras Album, The South Asian Collection, PIC106.15.

The sorting and attribution process for the Madras Album, while still on-going, is guided by comparisons such as these, as well as attention to the different personal interests and visual priorities of the sisters. As we know and can see elsewhere on this site, Elizabeth paid a great deal of time and attention to birds. Mary, on the other hand, was very interested in society and the people she saw in Madras.

…for 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.

Describing Mary’s street scenes, Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, no date, [internal evidence suggests the letter is written spring 1803]
Madras Album, The South Asian Collection, PIC106.51.

Though the sisters tell us a great deal in their letters, and we are fortunate to have many of their artwork, much of their lives and processes remain unknown. It is still worth considering how Mary and Elizabeth would have interacted both as siblings and as creatives with similar backgrounds yet diverse areas of interest.

By Saraphina Masters