In 1802, Mary Symonds wrote to her sister Hester James from Madras (now Chennai), “I hope now we are settled that I shall be able to send something for the curious by every opportunity.”

Mary had accompanied her sister, the talented ornithologist and painter Elizabeth Gwillim, and Elizabeth’s husband Henry Gwillim, a judge in the new Supreme Court of Madras. The materials the sisters sent home provide a uniquely detailed picture of their work and lives between 1801 and 1808.

In the British Library, four thick volumes contain the sisters’ 77 long letters: 164 zoological and botanical paintings represent their scientific work at McGill University and 78 landscapes and portraits depict their surroundings at the South Asia Collection in Norwich.

Elizabeth Gwillim at her writing desk, sketched in a letter to Hester James, February 7, 1802. Photo credit: British Library

Elizabeth Gwillim was the first to record the avian life of Madras in detail. Decades before John James Audubon, she painted birds from life and to scale, even the large birds of prey and waterbirds which dominate her collection.

Mary’s descriptions and paintings document Elizabeth’s artistic process and reveal the crucial role of the Indian bird-catchers who secured the living birds. Elizabeth’s paintings pay unusual attention to the placement of the bird’s features and reveal a taxonomical rather than purely artistic interest. A similar attention to detail is evident in the watercolours of fish, most by Mary Symonds. The fish paintings reveal a collaborative process of information gathering and several are inscribed with the fishes’ local names.

‘Birdcatchers’ by Mary Symonds, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album. Photo credit: British library
'Black Stork' (Ciconia nigra) by Elizabeth Gwillim, (Linnaeus 1758) McGill University Library. CA RBD Gwillim-1-010. Photo credit: British Library
‘Thalassoma lunare’ (Moon wrasse, labelled Julis lunaris) by Mary Symonds, McGill University Library, CA RBD Gwillim-2-5. Photo credit: British Libraary

In 1805, Elizabeth wrote “without some little knowledge of Botany it is impossible to read the Hindoo languages”. Like her contemporary, William Jones, Elizabeth regarded linguistic and botanical studies as intertwined.

Elizabeth studied Telugu, translating a local temple legend. She was part of the circle of missionary and medical botanists who linked Madras and the Danish settlement of Tranquebar and she sent plants and seeds back to a nursery garden in Brompton where several grew and were depicted in Curtis’ Botanical Magazine. One of her most detailed botanical images, of the Magnolia coco, remains in the Linnean Society herbarium.

‘Gwillimia Indica’ (Magnolia coco) by Elizabeth Gwillim, Linnean Society Herbarium (LINN-HS 981.10. Magnolia indet. (Herb Smith), by permission of the Linnean Society of London. Photo credit: British Library

Apart from their scientific pursuits, the sisters’ letters and paintings provide a wealth of details about food, clothing and the lives of Madras’ inhabitants, from Governor Edward Clive to Elizabeth’s maidservant, whose biography she relates in detail.

‘A Lady’s Maid, A Pariah Woman’ by Mary Symonds, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC106.75. Photo credit: British Library

The early 19th century was a turning point in the East India Company’s regime in India. The Company was completing its conquest of Mysore, the Carnatic and the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom. However, the tenuous nature of British rule was dramatically highlighted by the uprising at Vellore in July 1807, in which Indian soldiers killed their British commanders and took over the fort, raising the flag of Mysore before the uprising was brutally repressed.

Elizabeth and Mary collected first-hand accounts of the event, for which they blamed Company policy. By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1807, the Gwillim household had been drawn into conflict with the Company regime in Madras, which Henry Gwillim denounced as “despotic”. This prompted Henry’s recall to Britain, where he and Mary made new lives. The story of their time in Madras has remained largely untold until now.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.