In the fall of 2020, the Gwillim Project held a series of 9 webinars, Gwillim Project Online, which brought together an international network of scholars from diverse fields in order to explore the Gwillim/Symonds collections from multiple perspectives.

The webinars welcomed over 500 attendees. The Gwillim Project Online YouTube channel hosts the full webinar recordings and has attracted thousands of viewers.

My Things from the Ship are all Come Safe

The Gwillim Project Online opened with “My Things from the Ship are all Come Safe,” a talk by dress historians Alexandra Kim and Ann Wass, moderated by Cynthia Cooper, Head, Collections and Research, and Curator, Dress, Fashion and Textiles, McCord Museum, Montreal. Their presentation focuses on some of the exchanges in the sisters’ letters that provide a glimpse of how British women sought to dress appropriately while accommodating to the climate and the challenges of maintaining a stylish appearance, especially given the vagaries of shipments from England. They also shed some light on how fashionable Indian goods made their way to England.

Birds, Art, and Literature

This panel features presentations by Dr Subramanya and Dr Urfi. Discussion is moderated by Robert Montgomerie, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University, Kingston. Dr Subramanya’s presentation, entitled “Indian Bird Paintings by Lady Elizabeth Gwillim,” analyzes Lady Elizabeth Gwillim’s bird paintings and backgrounds. Dr Urfi’s presentation, “Writings on Indian Birds during the British Colonial Period: An Exploration,” examines the output of natural history writings by British writers in general. Taken together, these presentations highlight the sisters’ contributions to ornithology and to natural history more broadly.

The Lady as Proto-Ethnographer

This panel features a presentation by Professor Jeffrey Spear, in conversation with historian V. Sriram in Chennai, entitled “The Lady as Proto-Ethnographer: Temple Dancers and the Indian Sublime.” Discussion is moderated by Deborah Thiagarajan, Founder Director, Dakshina Chitra Heritage Museum. The presentation consists of two parts: The first section establishes Lady Gwillim to be, like Jane Austen, a product of the last stage of the English “Age of Reason,” and notes the transitions underway in Great Britain and India that soon led to a more biased view of Hindu practices. The second section begins with a brief account of the temple dancers or devadasis Lady Gwillim saw perform before turning to her description of Hindu festivals. It concludes with her description of the car festival featuring images and dancers from the Kapaleeswarar Temple celebrating the spring festival honoring the marriage of their aspects of Śiva and Parvati.

Lady Gwillim’s Botany

This panel moderated by Minakshi Menon focuses on Elizabeth Gwillim’s interest in botany, featuring a paper by Henry Noltie presented by Anna Winterbottom. John Bosco Lourdusamy gives a response to the paper. Elizabeth Gwillim’s keen interest in the natural world included plants as well as birds. Her sister Mary described her surrounded by botanical specimens, in conversation with local experts. As Elizabeth wrote, her studies of Telugu were aimed at increasing her ability to understand local plant knowledge. In this paper, Henry Noltie places Elizabeth’s botanical studies within the wider context of colonial botany in and beyond Madras.

Curry and Clove Beans

In this panel, moderated by Victoria Dickenson, Nathalie Cooke traces Elizabeth Gwillim’s encounters with the foods and foodways of Madras. Akash Muralidharan explores culinary shifts over time, tracing now forgotten elements of Tamil Nadu’s cuisine.

Personal Histories Revealed

In this panel, moderated by V. Sriram, we learn more about the personal lives of the Gwillim and Symonds sisters. Arthur MacGregor discusses the career and reputation of Sir Henry Gwillim. Patrick Wheeler delves into the sisters’ letters, drawing out their reflections on Indian and European social life and customs in Madras.

Gendered Perspectives

In this panel, moderated by Toolika Gupta, Rosemary Raza explores the sisters’ correspondence in the context of British women’s writing on India. Kate Smith draws parallels with the work of Sarah Elizabeth Amherst. And Victoria Dickenson discusses the work of managing a household and its material culture.

Environment, Architecture, Climate

In this panel, curated by A. Srivathsan, Vikram Bhatt uses the sister’s paintings and correspondence to examine the built environment of early nineteenth century Madras. Vinita Damodaran gives us an insight into the natural environment in the same period.

Art & Image

In this panel, curated by Jennifer Garland, Ben Cartwright takes a close look at Mary Symonds’ Madras Album, Marika Sardar places the sisters’ art in the context of Indian painting traditions and Saraphina Masters and Hana Nikčević draw out the distinctive features of the bird paintings by Elizabeth Gwillim and the street scenes by Mary Symonds.