There are fish to be found in no other part of the world...There is every colour: red fish of every tint, green, purple, and yellow, and striped like the most showy flowers, many as if wholly composed of rows of jewels, rubies and topazes set in chains. 
- Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, received in England in 1806

Gwillim Project
Newsletter Issue 13

Welcome to the thirteenth issue of the Gwillim Project's newsletter marking mid-March. This newsletter features an exploration of the Gwillim sisters' interest in fish, along with updates and links to relevant virtual resources.
Fish to Paint, Fish to Eat
Painting showing a side view of grey fish with pale coral accents and dark grey dots over body; blue wash underneath. Inscriptions on mat read, "Serranus horridus" and "Chǎpkilwan."
The fish paintings by Elizabeth Gwillim are currently being conserved by McGill Library and offer a historical record of local fish as well as the village fishing traditions. A case study by Shyamal Lakshminarayanan and Hana Nikčević in the forthcoming book, Women, Environment, and Empire: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras discusses the paintings and their interest in the local fishing culture. They note that the paintings of fish are often depicted in negative space or with the slightest suggestion of water in contrast to Elizabeth's bird paintings or Mary’s rich scenes of fishermen in action. The sisters often traveled to market, in 1806 going as far as the village of Kovalam/Covelong. Elizabeth describes the experience in a letter to Esther Symonds, drawing a line between familiar and exotic:  

“The rocks and rivers are romantic as Wales, though the hills are not lofty, and the place is abundant in rarities. It is particularly curious for fish. There are fish to be found in no other part of the world, and had I not seen them I could not have believed that such or such varieties existed. There is every colour: red fish of every tint, green, purple, and yellow, and striped like the most showy flowers, many as if wholly composed of rows of jewels, rubies and topazes set in chains. Mary drew above thirty sorts, but that is a mere trifle––it would take an age to do them all. She intends to have sent home these drawings…"
(Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, received in England in 1806)

The book emphasizes that Elizabeth attributes over thirty images to Mary, the remaining images could be by either sister. The Gwillim Project is grateful for the hard work of The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute for going through the entirety of the collection and re-identifing the paintings of fish. The archival collections catalogue will be finalized with this important input. 

In a case study for the Gwillim Project, Akash Muralidharan emphasizes the letters of the Gwillim sisters as a resource for tracing forgotten ingredients and traditions, giving us an idea of 19th century cooking practices. Muralidharan highlights the extinction of some fruit and vegetables, but the wide variety of fish represented by the sisters is of culinary interest, as well. Read the full case study on the website.

The article "The Curious Case of Colonial India’s Breakfast Curries" also discusses food, exploring the roots of the dish based on traditional Indian fare "kari" and adaptations starting in 1608 with British appropriation. Particularly of interest to this newsletter, the article mentions the many uses of fish, such as a  "Madras-style fish curry [spiced with] tamarind, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, tomato, curry leaves." Read the full article in Atlas Obscura here.

New in the Field

Network member Minakshi Menon gave a talk called "Colonialism, Coloniality and Botany" for the Humboldt Forum as part of the ‘Gardens of Empire’ digital conversation. The series examines the colonial legacy of the (natural) sciences and its pervasive manifestations in museums, archives, and collections. Watch the full lecture here.

The Dakshina Chitra Museum is showing the Gwillim and Symonds paintings until the 30th of March. The exhibition is displayed in the Kadambari Gallery and is called "Painting Madras, 1801-1808." It includes the original paintings as well as photographs of the city today. You can find more information here

The Gwillim Project in the news: The Daily Thanthi Next wrote about Rekha Vijayashankar's photographs of the scenes illustrated by Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds, the article highlighting inspiration and collaboration with the project. Vijayashankar's photographs will be displayed at the aforementioned exibit at the DakshinaChitra Museum. The full article can be found here.
As always, please reach out if you have questions or anything you'd like to see in the next newsletter:
Header Image: Untitled (catalogue no. 106.39), Mary Symonds [?], 1801-7 Madras Album,
The South Asia Collection, Norwich, UK.

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