The year is 1896. Edwin Harris and his youngest daughter Ellen are dead, and Emily is living alone at 34 Nile St in Nelson. On black-edged notepaper she writes to her sister Mary Weyergang with some important news from England. A letter has come from cousin Bessie Harris in Plymouth, thanking Emily for the condolences sent on hearing of the death of Edwin’s brother Henry Marmaduke Harris. Emily writes: ‘Uncle Henry died Sept. 21st 1895 in his 81st year. He had a very long illness & when he became deaf & blind he lost his reason. [Bessie] says “You would have been deeply interested to hear father calling your father when he first lost his reason, he immediately thought he was home again.”’ Then Bessie describes how her brothers have recently presented the Plymouth borough council with a painting by Edwin Harris, made before emigrating to New Zealand 55 years previously.
Father used to be very proud of a fine interior of Old Church (now usually known as St Andrews) and two of my brothers have bought it, for father’s will made that necessary and have themselves presented it to the town, first restoring it & its frame. I am sending you a newspaper with reference to its acceptance.
Emily, reading the accompanying newspaper story, is amazed:
I have often heard father speak of the time when he left school at the age of 18 to devote the whole of his time to painting & drawing and in order to be allowed to draw from the antiques in the Plymouth Atheneum, he had to paint a picture to show his ability, he often told that he painted the interior of a church. I never thought of asking what became of it but there is little doubt that it was given to his father & so passed on to Uncle Henry. However father worked so hard that he became so ill that he was sent in the country to board at a farmhouse for a year & forbidden by the doctor to touch a pencil for twelve months. At the end of that time he entered the office of Uncle Rendel and became a civil engineer and surveyor. Father was born in 1806 the date of the picture would fit in with the one he painted at 19 years of age.
How proud he would have been if he could have known of this and I know of no more curious thing than by this means his name should be remembered in Old Plymouth where he was born.
We are equally amazed when city heritage curator Nigel Overton of the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery responds to an enquiry about the Plymouth Harrises and the gift of Edwin’s painting:
Yes, we have the painting of St Andrew’s Church (mid 1820s) by Edwin Harris – but seemingly currently associated with a different Edwin Harris (1855-1906). This is most likely because the original accession record of gift has become disassociated in translation to the electronic database – so to have it confirmed that our painting is by Edwin Harris (1806-1895), originally of Plymouth, and was donated by his nephew Vigours Harris, is very helpful – thank you. If painted in the mid 1820s Edwin would have been late teens or maybe twenty years old. My Art Curator and City Library colleagues are copied in.
The Art UK website has it featured – and its subject and style clearly contrasts with the other seven featured works by the same artist.
And so we are at the museum’s off-site store this morning, looking at a painting now 194 years old with Nigel, art curator Terah Walkup and librarian Graham Naylor. The painting is elaborately framed in gold, a family treasure presented to the city fathers and commemorating St Andrew’s Anglican Church as it appeared in 1825, looking down the central aisle from behind the altar rail, taking in the old stone columns of the nave, the intricately coffered roof and some open skylights long since removed. The perspective is flawless, the detail impressive and the artist’s attention to the fall of light on surfaces is something we recognise from Edwin’s later work in New Zealand. A flash of red velvet relieves the greys and browns of the interior, which is without a single human figure. Graham spots an unobtrusive signature on a collection box in the foreground at bottom right: ‘Ed. Harris,’ it says.
St Andrew’s is the church where Sarah Hill and her sisters were baptised in the early 1800s. It is the church where Sarah married Edwin Harris in 1833 and where their first child Corbyn was baptised in 1835. The Harrises probably attended service at St Andrew’s on Sunday 7 November 1840 before embarking four days later on the barque William Bryan. Two storms delayed the departure of the ship for New Zealand and she didn’t get underway until 19 November. Sarah Harris recalled the bumpy start: ’Never my dear Father shall I forget our first night on board, when laying at anchor in Plymouth Sound, the dreadful storm, the terrible bump the vessel that broke from the moorings gave our back, the noise on deck. It was a fearful beginning. When my heart was bowed down with sorrow on parting with our dearest relatives & friends – when the unknown and uncertain prospects of the future would remind me that we were indeed strangers & pilgrims on earth.’ (May 1841)
And so Edwin’s painting of St Andrew’s Church, a family taonga (treasure), rejoins its people, who have been waiting a long time to see it step into the light of day. One of them, deaf and blind, called to the other half a world away and thought his brother was at home again.
Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis