Gwillim’s World: People

Elizabeth Gwillim did not make art in a vacuum, but instead was subject to a myriad of influences from the people around her. This is a limited list of people in England with whom Gwillim may have been in close contact or of whom she may have experienced a second-hand influence. This mode of thinking aims to create a broader idea of her social, cultural, and visual networks so that we can best understand her life and her art.

Thomas Symonds (1730 – d. March 12 1791): Elizabeth and Mary’s father was likely the beginning of their creative influences. Symonds was a stonemason and was sworn a Freeman of the City of Hereford on December 10, 1753. He was also a draughtsman, architect, and monumental mason whose work in Hereford and Somerset was very well-regarded. Symonds was appointed surveyor of Hereford Cathedral (below) in 1777. Following the collapse of the tower in 1786, however, he retired.

View of the Ruins of the West Tower of Hereford Cathedral, by I. Wathan, 1788, British Library.

Richard Payne Knight (1751-1823): Payne Knight was an archaeologist, antiquarian, aesthetic writer of theories on picturesque beauty, and he was considered a tastemaker during his time. He was born in Herefordshire and built Downton Castle in nearby Ludlow in 1775. Thomas Symonds was his clerk of works on this project, likely because of his architectural experience.

Richard Payne Knight by Margaret Carpenter (after Thomas Lawrence), 1852, British Museum

George Samuel (d. 1823): Not much is known about the sisters’ teacher, whom they mention often in their letters from India. Samuel was a watercolour artist who favoured landscapes, and these are likely the topics upon which he taught them. He himself was taught watercolours by Paul Sandby, and was part of the Sketching Society formed in 1799 by Thomas Girtin and Francois-Thomas-Louis Francia.

Cottages in Westmoreland by George Samuel, pre-1823, Yale Center for British Art.

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) had an impact on establishing watercolour as a reputable medium in England. He painted many landscapes and topographies.

Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening by Thomas Girtin, 1801, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Francois-Thomas-Louis Francia (1772-1839) was a French watercolourist, and she was a member of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours. She painted shore scenes.

The Pont de la Concorde and Tuileries Palace from the Cours la Reine by Francois-Thomas-Louis Francia, 1823, Yale Center for British Art.

Ending on a social example rather than a visual one, we know that the Gwillims were friends with the Bishop of Ely, James Yorke, and his wife Mary Yorke, as well as James’ elder brother Charles Yorke and his wife Agneta Yorke. Agneta Johnson and Charles Yorke married in 1762. Charles died shortly after, in 1770, but the widowed Agneta lived on for many more years, until 1820. In that time, Agneta (as the senior Yorke lady) presented Elizabeth Gwillim at court, right before the sisters’ departure to India. James Yorke and Mary Maddox also married in 1762. The pair split their time between the Bishop’s Palace in Ely and the Bishop’s home on Dover Street in London.

In 1802, after moving to Madras, Elizabeth noted that Henry was distraught at the news of James’ brother, John Yorke’s, death: “He cried a whole day,” she wrote. Elizabeth also shipped some “packets” (their contents unspecified) to the Bishop at Henry’s request, though these may have been lost at sea. To Mary Yorke, she sent “a translation of a Hindoo religious history––a sort of legendary tale.”

From the contents of the Yorke Collection at Cambridge University Library, we know that Mary Yorke had varied interests and might have been what we could term a “bluestocking”––the Collection contains her translation of the Psalter into verse by James Merrick (1765) and copy of Isaac Watts’s beginner’s guide to astronomy (1745).) At least one of Elizabeth’s more lively dispatches made it safely abroad. In an 1806 letter to a Lady Lucas, Mary Yorke mentioned that the Gwillims sent her and the bishop an Argus Pheasant––”a most beautiful bird.” (to Rt. Hon. Lady Lucas, December 7th, 1806, from the Bedford Archives, courtesy of Anthea Jones.)

Information on the Yorkes courtesy of Anthea Jones.

Agneta Yorke by Valentine Green after Francis Cotes, 1768, British Museum

By Saraphina Masters