Emily at the Natural History Museum, London 

As the onset of war in 1914 closed sea lanes to Europe and turned international scientific delegates for home sooner than planned, Emily Harris wrote to the Keeper of Botany at the Natural History Museum in London:

I have been looking forward for months for the visit of the Scientific visitors to New Zealand & now this dreadful war has altered everything.

I am a New Zealand artist & for a great many years have restricted my work to N.Z. subjects, flowers, birds, ferns, berries, grasses etc.

In 1894 I sent three books to the Botanical Department of the British Museum for which I received a letter of thanks, you may have seen them, Flowers Berries & Ferns, I do not remember if they were coloured as numbers were sold uncoloured but later I coloured a great many by hand.

I have been hoping to show you & Dr F. O. Bower the very large collection of original paintings I have in my Studio in oil & water colour large & small paintings finished pictures & panels – also portfolios of rough sketches the work of a long life devoted to making better known the lovely things more difficult to obtain each year.

I am not a botanist but botanists have frequently sent me rare plants if they thought I had not got them.

Many of my paintings have found their way to England & elsewhere. As a child I lived in the bush for some years & so became familiar with the forest trees & flowers & their manner of growth, & have also camped out many times.

Some years ago I made a number of drawings of mountain flora. I wanted to publish it in colours but finding the expense too much decided to sell the paintings & when my relative the late Lord Rendel saw the book he liked it so much that he made me an offer to buy it for his private collection which I accepted. He sent me a message that at any time I wished any one to see the book they would be very glad to show it, so if on your return to London you would care to see a very complete collection of NZ mountain flowers, whoever has it now would be pleased to show it to you.

In conclusion I can only repeat how disappointed I am that I cannot show you so many things I have, too large to go in a book.

For the present I’ve put all artistic work aside and am doing whatever I can to help my dear Motherland.

(29 Aug 1914, Natural History Museum Archives)

Emily got a response to her letter from Dr Alfred Barton Rendle at the Natural History Museum. He had been one of the delegates from the Australian congress of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) who came on to New Zealand with other botanical colleagues:

Dear Miss Harris,

I was sorry to be unable to see your drawings of New Zealand plants. I spent a week in the North Island – all too short a time and much enjoyed some trips with Dr Cockayne but had to leave for home without visiting the South Island.

I shall hope at some time to see this collection which you disposed of to the late Lord Rendel. I have just been looking at the three little volumes you sent in 1894.

It was very good to see the warm patriotism displayed by our friends in Australia and New Zealand and also in Canada which I crossed on the way home. I wish the German authorities could have been with me to see it!

Thanking you for your letter, I am yours very truly, A.B. Rendle.

(22 Oct 1914, Cranstone Papers)

Rendle’s note alerted us to the existence of Emily Harris’s donation of a set of New Zealand Flowers, Berries and Ferns in the 1890s. When we searched NHM archives there they were, plus Emily’s 1914 letter, a nice trail and our first indication that Emily had sent Flowers, Berries and Ferns to one of the most important scientific centres of the day (NHM is a division of the British Museum). Emily was nothing if not ambitious for her work, and she was always certain of its quality. Then we saw something else in the NHM search: three body-colour paintings accessioned in 1894. Emily sent original paintings as well as her lithograph books. She was, we reflected, upselling before the term was invented. Body-colour is water-based but is more opaque than watercolour in order to show colour on a non-white ground.

In due course digital images were ordered and we were able to ascertain that NHM’s lithograph books are uncoloured and that the body-colour paintings are studies of alpine daisies and a gentian. Two of the body-colours are painted on olive green paper, the third on a mid-grey ground.

All good, but not the same as being at NHM on a morning in June with Emily’s books, the 1914 letter and the three paintings to look at in detail. When we open the folder which houses the body-colours, we find ourselves looking at a cover for NZ Flowers inside which Emily has placed her three paintings. Each painting is vibrant, especially the white of the gentian and daisy petals against their coloured grounds. All three are in perfect condition. And there on the back of the Celmisia chapmanii from Campbell Island is a pencilled note indicating that an accompanying letter from the artist identifies the species as the largest of its kind. So at least one more letter, and perhaps two, were at one time lodged in the correspondence files at NHM but have disappeared, leaving only traces of Emily’s association with the museum. The luck of the archive leaves us with the three pages from 1914 written on crackly onion-skin paper and preserved in their own folder, bringing into sharp focus the outbreak of war and its dashing of Emily Harris’s hopes for publishing her work in England. But the discovery of the three body-colours preserved in a discarded NZ Flowers cover points to something very interesting indeed. We knew that Emily had embarked on her NZ Mountain Flora project by 1894, but not that she was confident enough of its interest to international authorities to send a sample of her alpine paintings to London.

Here are our reference descriptions of the NHM paintings

Emily Cumming Harris. Celmisia hieracifolia from Dunne Mountain, Nelson, NZ. Creation Date: 1893. Bodycolour on green paper. 308 x 246mm. Natural History Museum, London. 44NHM ALMA. Botany drawings unmounted Box D-K Cupboard 31. (NHM title: [Bodycolour drawings of plants for New Zealand Flowers, published in 1894])

Emily Cumming Harris. Celmisia chapmanii from Campbell’s Is and Celmisia vernicosa from Campbell’s Is. Creation Date: 1893. Bodycolour on grey paper. 308 x 246mm. Natural History Museum, London. 44NHM ALMA. Botany drawings unmounted Box D-K Cupboard 31. (NHM title: [Bodycolour drawings of plants for New Zealand Flowers, published in 1894])

Emily Cumming Harris. Gentian. Creation Date: 1893. Bodycolour on green paper. 308 x 246mm. Natural History Museum., London 44NHM ALMA. Botany drawings unmounted Box D-K Cupboard 31. (NHM title: [Bodycolour drawings of plants for New Zealand Flowers, published in 1894])

3 body-colours and NZ flowers cover laid out with Michele at Natural History MuseumLead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis

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