Botany was a fashionable pursuit for English women in the early nineteenth century. Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds moved in botanical circles even before their departure for India, maintaining close friendships in London with the Brompton nurseryman Reginald Whitley and his stepdaughters Elizabeth and Mary Thoburn, to whom they sent seeds and specimens of Indian plants.
… after learning a little Botany it seems almost impossible to stop.Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, March 6, 1805
In Madras, Elizabeth studied botany with the missionary Dr Johann Peter Rottler, who, she proudly complained, ‘praises me too much & makes one lazy’.
Elizabeth also consulted brahmins for the Sanskrit names of plants and searched for Linnaean names in the copy of Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary she had brought with her.
Mary Symonds described Elizabeth in 1803:
I almost wish you could see her in her glory; that is, with about twenty black men round her, a table full of books, the floor strewed with baskets of seeded branches of trees, and she herself standing in the midst with her cap snatched to one side and talking away till she is quite fatigued. The seeds and plants are collected from the Hills, and woods, by some poor country people, and she gets some of the native Doctors to give her the common name, the Brahmins tell her the Sanscrit and the Books are consulted to find out the Linaean names.Mary Symonds to her Mother, Esther Symonds, n.d.
Learning Indian botany not only helped Elizabeth identify the plants in her garden, it was also important to her study of the Telugu language spoken by many people in Madras. Because there were so many plant metaphors in the literature, knowing the local flora was essential to reading the texts.
In the archives of the Linnean society in London, a lovely watercolour painted by Elizabeth was tucked into a letter from Dr Johann Rottler in Madras to the English botanist James Edward Smith. Rottler considered this plant a new species and named it Gwillimia indica in Elizabeth’s honour (it is now known as Magnolia coco).
Elizabeth painted this excellent watercolour for Dr Rottler and wrote to her sister in 1805:
I have drawn the plant which Dr: Rottler has done me the honour to call after me I hope it may be new – … Gwillimia Indica … I have taken great pains to send it home the plant General Trent was so kind as to carry was I hear alive when he left it in the ship & I hope it got safe but it was a cold time for a plant that requires sun. This was the 4th time I have sent trees of it to England – It is a very sweet flower at least here it has a delicate odour but not strong. It came from Batavia & is there called Sampa Salaca. – which means milk flower – It is very much like a Magnolia Glauca – but seldom opens wide till it is near fading — I rather think that Dr: Rottler wants this drawing which I have made to be sent to Dr: Smith with the dried specimen.Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, August 24, 1805
Elizabeth wrote ‘sum pa sa la ka’ in Telugu script on the back of this watercolour.
Mary Symonds also cultivated botanical friendships in Madras. In 1807, she described painting a plant grown by Dr Andrew Berry, an East India Company surgeon and botanist. This was the so-called ‘Columbo root’, a medicine long known in Europe, but whose origins had been deliberately obscured by the Portuguese who traded it from Mozambique.
Andrew Berry described the Columbo root in Asiatick Researches in 1811, but who made the original illustration for the accompanying engraving remains unknown. Was this be a surviving example of Mary’s work? And what happened to the other botanical paintings mentioned in the letters?
Though they likely painted many more flowers and plants, just twelve botanical paintings remain in the Blacker Wood Natural History Collection at McGill. When Dr Casey Wood bought the albums of flowers, fish and birds for the McGill Library from a London book dealer in 1925, he was told that occasional paintings from the collection had been sold for framing or for decorating fire screens. This was probably the fate of the finest examples of the sisters’ botanical art.
Information courtesy of Dr Anna Winterbottom and Dr Henry Noltie.