Elizabeth Gwillim

Elizabeth Gwillim (née Symonds) (April 21, 1763 – December 21, 1807) was an English artist and naturalist. While living in India from 1801 to 1807, Lady Elizabeth Gwillim painted a series of about 200 watercolours of Indian birds. Produced about 20 years before John James Audubon’s famous illustrations, her work has been acclaimed for its accuracy and naturalism. Instead of working from skins, Elizabeth observed living birds in their natural environments.

Elizabeth was born in the valley of Wye, Hereford in 1763 to Esther and Thomas Symonds. She had four sisters, Francis, Ann (called Nancy), Mary (called Polly), and Hester (called Hetty), as well as a brother, Thomas who died before reaching adulthood. Francis also died in infancy. Her father, Thomas Symonds, was a stonemason, as well as a draughtsman, architect and monumental mason. Following her father’s death in 1791, her mother, Esther, continued on with the business.

Elizabeth married Henry Gwillim in 1784 in London at St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. The couple had a daughter, also named Elizabeth, who died before her first birthday, as well as a son Henry, and daughter Ann, who both died in early childhood. In an 1806 letter from India, Elizabeth refers to being childless.

Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-073.

Elizabeth, her husband Henry, and her unmarried sister Mary Symonds, as well as Henry’s assistant Richard Clarke, another clerk, and two Indian servants, embarked at Plymouth on the ship Hindostan in late February 1801, arriving in Madras almost five months later, on July 27. Her husband received a knighthood later that year, granting Elizabeth the courtesy title of Lady Gwillim.

The family’s life in Madras is thoroughly detailed in letters, now held in the British Library, from the sisters to their mother, sister Hester, and friends back in England. The letters cover a wide variety of topics, such as the climate, the landscape, the food, the social and religious customs of the Indians, and much more. Scholars from many fields have read the Gwillim-Symonds letters for information on diverse subjects, such as their visits to women in the zenanas and the role of devadasis in society. Most famously, however, Elizabeth details the natural world around her in her letters and in the many bird paintings she created during her years in Madras.

Elizabeth died in 1807, and she was buried in St. Mary’s Church in Madras. In 1808, Henry and Mary left Madras, bringing Elizabeth’s paintings with them. It is unclear what happened to her paintings after that. If they remained in Henry’s possession, it seems likely that they were sold after Henry’s death in 1837.

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Elizabeth Gwillim’s Wikipedia page has been updated as of 2021 by Saraphina Masters.

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