Natural History

The letters and watercolours of Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds document the natural world of south India at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Gwillim Collection at McGill contains Elizabeth and Mary’s watercolours of birds, fish and plants.

In this section of the website, you will find a variety of case studies exploring Elizabeth and Mary’s interest in natural history. The first section focuses on Elizabeth’s bird paintings, examining the birds within both their natural and historical contexts. Saraphina Masters then provides comparisons of Elizabeth’s bird paintings with her contemporaries. Saraphina Masters also shares a close study of Elizabeth’s depictions of feathers.

We then move on to Mary’s fish paintings, first examining the fish within their historical context. Hana Nikčević then provides a close study of the fish paintings, exploring their provenance and creation. Mary’s fish are then compared with those of her contemporaries by Shyamal Lakshminarayanan.

In addition to painting fish and birds, the sisters were also interested in botany, and painted and collected plants. Indeed, the Gwillimia indica was named after Elizabeth. Victoria Dickenson and Anna Winterbottom explore the botanical connections and exchanges between the sisters and their friends.

Mary and Elizabeth relied on local knowledge in all three fields of natural history listed above. Saraphina Masters explores how Elizabeth and Mary relied on these local experts to inform their works.

The sisters’ letters also tell us much about the environment and climate of Madras in the early nineteenth-century. For instance, Anna Winterbottom examines beliefs about the relationship between health and climate, while Carleigh Nicholls explores the growing interest in weather monitoring and climate during this time. Vikram Bhatt shows how we can learn much about Madras’ environment through the depictions of the landscapes in the sisters’ paintings.