Emily and the Suter Gift Book

Curator Sarah McClintock of the Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū has discovered a watercolour drawing that could be the latest-known work by Emily Harris. The drawing of pink-flowering mānuka with an artist’s palette and fern vines is part of  the Nelson Suter Art Society Gift Book for Mrs JA Topliss. The book contains contributions by various artists. Emily’s watercolour is painted directly on page 6, signed and dated 1920 when she was 83.

Juliet Alice Topliss (1861-1930) and Emily Harris were contributors to the first exhibition of the Bishopdale Sketch Club in 1893. Later the club became the Suter Art Society and Mrs Topliss took a keen interest in its activities for many years. Emily’s watercolour for the 1920 Gift Book acknowledges their shared delight in detailed approaches to art making. The artist’s palette twined with native creeper features also on the covers of Emily’s three lithograph books New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns, published in Nelson by bookseller HD Jackson in 1890.

The size of the 1920 painting (H167 x W194mm.) aligns it with the hand-painted cards Emily and her sisters Frances and Ellen sold as part of their art production. Emily’s tally of sales from an exhibition in Stratford, Taranaki, in 1890 shows that  cards were often bought by women: ‘Sold, Mr Charles Curtis, “The Cat” (Ellen’s) one pound ten; “View of Stoke” ten shillings  (Frances); 3 cards, six shillings, “study of fruit” one pound, mountain flowers to be copied, seven shillings (mine); one to be painted, Miss Bayley one card, one shilling; Mrs F. Arden two cards at two shillings, four shillings; Mr G. Curtis “Peaches” two pounds, (F’s), all paid.’

No card painted by the Harris sisters has entered a public collection as best we know. But Emily’s small watercolour, a gift from one practising woman artist to another, shows what those cards might have looked like.

Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis, Sarah McClintock

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