About the Gwillim Project

The Gwillim Project centres around the unpublished correspondence and artwork of two sisters who lived in Madras (now Chennai), India, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The original materials are widely dispersed in institutions in Canada and the UK.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-055.

The project brings together widely separated collections from museums and libraries. The original watercolours are held in two collections – the Blacker Wood Natural History Collection at McGill University, Montreal, and The South Asia Collection, Norwich, UK, managed by the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection Trust (SADACC). The four volumes of their fulsome and affectionate correspondence preserved in the British Library (Mss Eur C240), are peppered with small sketches and rich in details of local culture as well as domestic life, and provide a remarkably granular snapshot of the world of an expatriate family in Madras between 1801 and 1808.

In their letters home and in their skillful drawings and paintings, Elizabeth Gwillim and her sister Mary Symonds share their experience of living in Madras, giving researchers an exceptional entrée to the interconnected web of global exchanges of goods and people, and the rich material culture at both ends of the long passage to India during the Company Raj. The letters challenge our too easily held assumptions about women’s work, interests and social position, in both England and India, revealing deep attention to natural science, politics and local cultures. Their letters and drawings also provide marvellous insight into the landscape, climate and ecology of the Coromandel coast, documenting birds, animals, fish, insects, flowers, trees, as well as the lives of the human inhabitants.

Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.22.

The Project’s multidisciplinary international network was established in 2017 and includes research collaborators already familiar and working with the Gwillim/Symonds archive and those whose work will bring diverse insights to the materials, as well as partner institutions engaged in the preservation and diffusion of the original materials. Over the course of the Project, the research network has deepened with the contributions of student research assistants, and has grown with the addition of new collaborations. The original research project (2019-2022) is funded through the Partnership Development Grant program at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Additional funding for the project has been provided by the Shastri Indo-Canadian Fund and the Digital Museums of Canada. McGill Library has provided administrative and logistical support to the Project.

The Gwillim Project is unlocking new resources for scholars around the themes of exchange, gendered perception, and environmental and climate change, illuminating the larger world of southern India under the ‘Company Raj’. It is also adding to the archive of ‘imperial natural history’, making accessible textual and visual observations of an environment radically changed since the early 1800s, and inviting new perspectives on the colonial enterprise.