Elizabeth Gwillim’s letters and paintings are the first ever detailed documentation of the birds of early nineteenth-century Madras (present day Chennai). 

Elizabeth Gwillim’s paintings of birds are superb, equal to those of her better known contemporaries such as, the American artist, John James Audubon. She painted 104 species of birds in her 121 watercolours.  Of these, almost half are waterbirds, evidence of the rivers and rich wetlands surrounding Madras, and almost one-quarter represent birds of prey.

The paintings and notes are of value to contemporary ornithologists who track changing distribution and populations. For instance, see the collection of maps created by Qianru Wang, with information supplied by Prof. S. Subramanya, outlining bird abundance per season based on some of the birds from Elizabeth’s paintings.

Rare Birds

Elizabeth Gwillim’s bird catchers brought her birds from the surrounding countryside. Some of these birds have disappeared from the forests and wetlands; others are now rare. 

The Red-headed and Indian Vultures she saw and painted have become Critically Endangered and have largely disappeared from the region, largely due to poisoning from drugs used to treat cattle. 

Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University, CA RBD Gwillim-1-005.

The Black-headed Ibis and the Greater Adjutant Stork that Elizabeth painted are also now under threat from hunting and the disappearance of habitat, as wetlands are drained for farming or development. 

Corn Crakes (Crex crex) are extremely rare in Chennai today. They occasionally spend the winter in India. Were they more common when Elizabeth painted this bird?

For more information on this topic, view the Webinar: “Birds, Art, and Literature in 19th Century Madras.”

Thank you to Professor S. Subramanya for much of the above information.