It is Friday 30 November 2018, the opening day of the annual Big Design Market at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. The ground floor of the Great Hall is packed with vendors, buyers, stalls and displays. A roar of music and a susurrus of voices floats up to the mezzanine where volunteer guide Phil and his intern Fong are conducting the daily tour of the Exhibition Building. We can’t walk around the ground floor today because of the market, Phil explains. The Exhibition building at 138 years old is still fit for purpose as a venue for the city’s big events. It was built to house the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81, a seven-month extravaganza that attracted 1.3 million visitors and nearly bankrupted the city. There were 33 national pavilions, many of them temporary constructions in the grounds of Carlton Gardens. The New Zealand Court was over there (Phil is waving towards the north of the building). This is what we have been waiting to hear.
Emily Harris came to Melbourne in 1880 to see her 28 watercolours of New Zealand wild flowers and berries hanging as a single exhibit in the New Zealand Court. They and many of the other exhibits had travelled from the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879-80 for a second Australian showing in Melbourne. Emily’s exhibit had won a silver medal (first class) in Sydney and she must have been hopeful that her success would be repeated in Melbourne. As Phil and Fong wrap up their tour and escort our party to an exit on the ground floor, we continue talking about Emily’s visit, wondering whether she came with friends, where she stayed and what she thought of the grand display of colonial enterprise. We’ve checked the Official Record and found her exhibit listed among ‘Various Paintings and Drawings.’ We’ve looked again at images of the handful of watercolours with a date of 1879, knowing that Emily spent months preparing the exhibit and that these paintings are likely to be remnants of her grand scheme for a colour-graduated representation of native flora. Fuchsia and Sophora. Kiekie, Nikau, Five-finger and Karaka in fruit. Celmisias from Marlborough and Nelson). We’ve noted Margaret Anderson Hope’s entry in the Official Record: ‘Miss M Hope’ Hobart – Huon pine table top with wreaths of Tasmanian flowers.’ But most of all we are thinking about the Melbourne Exhibition visitors’ register that the State Library of Victoria is retrieving from storage for us to look at tomorrow morning. Will Emily’s name be there?
On Saturday we are at the doors of the library as it opens, heading for the reading room and waving to Fong in the foyer. He explains that he volunteers some Saturdays at the library and wishes us luck. The librarians needed a full day to retrieve the visitors’ book. It is huge: over half a metre long, 445mm wide and 170mm deep. It is very heavy, manufactured for the Exhibition by local papermakers and bookbinders Cowan and Co. of Flinders Lane. We open it and start reading the names of visitors, their town or country of origin and what they thought about the exhibition. The comments from New Zealanders vary from ‘Grand and Sublime’ to ‘Kapai,’ one comment simply states ‘weak’. Some of the comments are even in short hand. There are visitors from Nelson, Arthur Clayden, F Godfrey, Frances and Ada Emily Trask, Esq Blick and William N West and they cover the usual range of response ‘Excellent!’ and ‘Superior’, ‘Very Good Indeed’. Emily’s next-door neighbour in Nile St is there: ‘Mrs R Levien, Nelson NZ, too beautiful for remark.’ But Emily Harris is not among the nearly 16,000 visitors who signed the register.
Are we disappointed? Of course. Should we re-read the entries to make sure we haven’t missed Emily’s name? We are out of time. Finding Emily’s neighbour and co-traveller to Melbourne is today’s addition to the big jigsaw. We leave the library and walk out into a 32-degree Melbourne Saturday afternoon. Next: a trip back to the Design Market and some Christmas shopping.
Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis