Elizabeth A. Thomas: Flowers of India

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This impressive collection of botanical paintings in watercolour pencil are by Elizabeth Ann Commins Thomas. Executed mainly between 1870 and 1880, these pictures’ beauty and rarity comes from their source material and size: these paintings are larger than was typical for botanical works of their time, and nearly all the blossoms in the collection are drawn from life in the Kailasa hill range in Vizagapatam District (or Visakhapatnam as it is now known).

Elizabeth Ann Commins Thomas was married to Judge Edward Croft Greenway Thomas, who built a bungalow on top of Kailasa hill and attempted to promote the hill as an ideal location for a ‘sanatorium’. The area’s cool climate, shaded terrain and coastal air provided conditions which would ‘meet all the requirements of the inhabitants of Calcutta, &c., to a very remarkable extent’. The flora in the area was also remarkable, as observed in 1876 by John Shortt, surgeon major in H.M. Indian Army: ‘The jungle is the most peculiar and attractive I have seen in all my varied forest wanderings…. There are also other really beautiful flowering bushes, wild orange, wild vines, sandalwood, numerous ferns’. Shortt goes on to attribute his own good health to the area: ‘When I went to Vizagapatam I was in such weak health that I had many doubts of how long I should be able to continue my duties. To my mornings on this breezy hill I must entirely attribute the restoration of my health.’

These works were evidently a labour of love. Thomas annotates most of the paintings with inscriptions noting specific locations and observations such as ‘beautiful scent’ or ‘after 6 years…hunting’. Their vivid colouring and bold composition capture the remarkable vibrancy of the flora, and communicate something of the restorative power of the Kailasa hill range itself. Both beautiful and scientifically accurate, this collection of works is a rare jewel, weaving intersections through the late 19th century worlds of Britain, India, art and science.