The Gwillim Project: An exploration of a memoir from 1800s Madras

The unpublished letters and art of two English sisters who lived, wrote, painted, travelled in, and observed 19th century Madras are the subject of growing interest among experts across disciplines.

Published: 28th March 2022 01:39 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd April 2022 05:04 PM   |  A+A-

Fishermen of Madras painted by one of the Symonds-Gwillim sisters.

Fishermen of Madras painted by one of the Symonds-Gwillim sisters. (Photo DakshinaChitra Museum).

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Who would have thought that a collection of bird paintings found by a Canadian ophthalmologist in the basement of a London book dealer’s shop in 1924 could today offer an exquisitely detailed look at 19th century Madras’ natural world? Dr Casey A Wood, a passionate collector of books on the eyesight of birds, didn’t expect to find any rare items initially.

Then, he stumbled upon a safety lock-laden portfolio with the inscription “Elizabeth Gwillim, Madras, 1800–1806” on the front leaf. It turned out to host 121 life-sized paintings of Indian birds (along with portraits of fishes and flowers). Though he didn’t think much of the art that high-society, Georgian-era women were trained to produce, Wood realised that he was seeing uncommon artistic prowess in the 5x4 ft collection. Wood wrote, as per an account by Katherine Gombay, that the paintings were “by the hand of no mean draughtsman.” 

Women of yore
The owner of the collection was Lady Elizabeth Symonds Gwillim, an upper-class woman who had moved to Madras with her husband, Sir Henry Gwillim, a judge at the Madras High Court, and her younger sister, Mary Symonds, in 1801. They lived there until Elizabeth’s death at the age of 44 in December 1807. The Symonds-Gwillim sisters made sure their family and friends in England, to whom they sent letters, did not miss a single detail of their seven years in Madras.

From complaints about the hot weather to opinions on the Vellore Mutiny against The East India Company to descriptions of the exotic vegetables and ‘curries’ they sampled — Elizabeth and Mary’s letters covered a sweeping range of the sights and sounds of Madras. Sketches and artwork too would be included in the correspondence, which would occasionally contain kalamkari cloth, and plant seeds from Elizabeth, who was a noted botanist and horticulturalists, too.

Now, there is renewed engagement with the sisters’ letters and art by writers, ecological art historians, ornithologists, naturalists, museum professionals, librarians, food historians as well as scholars of colonialist enterprise; particularly, those interested in life in southern India during the Company Raj.

In 2017, The Gwillim Project, an almost 50-member global network of multidisciplinary researchers and organisations, was created to study the sisters’ legacy from different perspectives.

“Often, works of women disappear, and we never know how they saw landscapes and the natural world,”  says Victoria Dickenson, professor at McGill Library and Collections, Montreal, and principal investigator of the project. This erasure spurred Victoria to lead the effort in assembling the sisters’ scattered correspondence and art in order to digitise them, an initiative that was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

A landscape from Madras painted by one of the Symonds-Gwillim sisters. (Photo  DakshinaChitra Museum).

The past in paintings
In the landscapes depicted in their paintings, one can see, in the background, people engaged in activities from washing clothes to feeding horses, even prayer, shares Anna Winterbottom, a research associate on the project. The letters, for their part, “are so minutely detailed that environmental history researchers were actually able to confirm a period of dry weather in Madras between 1801-1803, followed by plentiful rains between 1804 and 1806,” the historian adds. 

Elizabeth and Mary were also fascinated by the city’s waterways. “The sisters wrote evocatively on the hydrogeography of Madras,” points out Vinita Damodaran, director, Centre for World Environmental History, University of Sussex. She notes that the Adyar and Cooum rivers as we know them today “nowhere resembled the rivers that the sisters had described.” The religious lives of people in Madras strongly feature in the sisters’ communication. Many of the backgrounds in their paintings feature temples.

Rekha Vijayashankar’s photographic recreations (left) of the sisters’ paintings from two hundred years ago (right)

Historian V Sriram exclaims, “In 1805, Lady Elizabeth had participated in a festival at the Kapaleeswarar temple and left a vivid account of it — this connection to Chennai city is what fascinated me about the project.”

Although similarly skilled as artists, the sisters differed in expression. Drawing a comparison, Patrick Wheeler says in his 2021 book Life in Early British Colonial Madras: The Letters of Elizabeth Gwillim and Her Sister Mary Symonds from Madras 1801-1807, that Elizabeth was determined to document all that she could about the culture and daily lives of Indians; Mary was more inclined to “descriptions of places, people and surroundings, not always complimentary to her peers”. The author also found that one of Elizabeth’s chatty letters comprised 10,000 words. It is to be noted that such correspondence was conducted at a time when the sinking of ships (they would take months to deliver letters) was commonplace.

Elizabeth Gwillim, Purple heron (Ardea purpurea). Madras, 1801-1807. Blacker Wood Collection, Rare Books & Special Collections, McGill University Library.

A project of resonance
Going beyond scholarly exploration, some Gwillim network members even found personal resonance. Deborah Thiagarajan, founder-director, DakshinaChitra Museum, laughs as she recounts how she, too, like Elizabeth, used to write to her mother, requesting for things to be sent to her in Tamil Nadu.

Deborah, who moved to India in 1970 to join her husband, says, “I used to write to my mother who was in the US asking her to send clothes for my daughter and more. What is so funny about this is, in the early 1800s, Elizabeth too sent her mother a list – dresses, writing paper, quills, and whatnot.”

Rekha Shankar, photographer-assistant librarian, DakshinaChitra Museum, says the sisters’ paintings inspired her to retrace their steps and establish a contrast between the city then and now. “I observed hilly landscapes in the sisters’ paintings; so, I figured they would have drawn it upon visiting Tiruvannamalai or Senji as they are on the hilly side. I, then, recreated those landscapes and scenes in the form of photographs,” she elaborated.

The Gwillim network, with even research students joining in, continues to pore over the springwell of knowledge Elizabeth and Mary left behind to better understand Madras of the 1800s. What they weave together from the many threads of connections is bound to be a sight to behold. 

Elizabeth Gwillim, Myripristis murdjan. Madras, 1801-1807. Blacker Wood Collection, Rare Books & Special Collections, McGill University Library.

The Gwillim Project (since 2017)

  • Elizabeth’s watercolours are at the Blacker-Wood Library of Zoology and Ornithology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
  • Portraits and landscapes by Mary Symonds are under the care of the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection, Norwich, UK
  • Their original letters are at the British Library (MSS Eur C240)
  • Key collaborators/sponsors: the McGill Library, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, the Shastri Indo-Canadian Fund, the Digital Museums of Canada, the DakshinaChitra Museum, Chennai



April 16: Event at DakshinaChitra Museum to discuss Elizabeth’s ornithology work

2023: McGill-Queen’s University Press to bring out book featuring contributions from network members and research students



  • Elizabeth produced her life-sized collection of Indian bird paintings 20 years before the publication of John James Audubon’s 435 life-sized watercolours in his celebrated collection The Birds of America (1827–1839).
  • Elizabeth learnt to read and write Telugu in order to be able to understand the common names of plant species she saw for taxonomy purposes.


  • “Painting Madras, 1801-1808” is on display in the Kadambari Gallery, DakshinaChitra Museum, till March 30.
  • Visit to view the sisters’ artwork, letter transcriptions, newsletters, and webinars on the project.


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