Portrait of Sarah Harris

We are so lucky to be in touch with the Harris Family descendants based here in New Zealand. This week we hear from one of them about their recollections.

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I am Roseanne Cranstone (nee Briant), a great-great-granddaughter of Sarah Harris, who was one of the first settlers in New Plymouth. She is also the mother of Emily Cumming Harris, artist and writer.

I have a portrait painting of Sarah Harris (oil on canvas) which has been passed on through family to me. I think it would be appropriate if the portrait returned to New Plymouth, ideally into the Puke Ariki Museum collection. I would like to share my recollections of the portrait growing up and how it might be relevant to the collection.

Sarah Harris (nee Hill) was born in Plymouth, England, 1806, and died in Nelson, New Zealand, 1879.

Sarah was one of nine children (2 sons & 7 daughters). One of Sarah’s sisters Ann Mountjoy Hill married Francis William Paddon; they had two children, a son Francis Paddon and a daughter Mary Mountjoy Paddon. It was one of Mary’s letters which helped us discover who the sitter in the portrait is, and who painted it.

I remember as a child the portrait at my parents’ house on the farm at Bonny Glen near Marton. I am one of four daughters, and as children we lived in an old wooden two-storeyed house on a sheep and beef farm fifteen minutes west of the rural town of Marton.

The portrait hung high on the wall in the hallway opposite the staircase. We girls knew the portrait was some relative on our father’s side of the family, but we didn’t like the painting as it looked dark and morbid, especially in the dark hallway. In the portrait Sarah has a faint smile and has a pleasant face but her black hair looks very formal and tightly arranged. She has a fur around her shoulders and is wearing a very fine long gold chain.

We grew up with that portrait in the house, playing trains on the stairs and sliding down the banister. Below where the portrait hung was a small alcove where our party line telephone sat and below the telephone was a cupboard where the family safe was kept. I thought it might have treasure inside as we were never allowed to look, but it was just full of old family papers and letters.

I am guessing the portrait was hanging there well before we were all born. The house was the home of my Grandparents, Edgar and Gretchen Briant. They bought the farm having moved from Eltham, Taranaki, in the early 1900s. Gretchen had her mother, Mary Rendel Weyergang (nee Harris) to stay at the farm as well as her Aunt, Emily Cumming Harris.

Only two of Sarah’s eight children married, Mary my great-grandmother being one of them. She would have been given the portrait of her mother, which was then left in the Bonny Glen house after she died in 1932, or possibly Emily gave it to her niece Gretchen when she came to stay at the farm.

Unfortunately the Bonny Glen house burnt down in the 1980s, but my parents had already retired to Calico Line in Marton. The portrait went with them to their new home but was never hung. It was stored away for many years.

My father died in 1987, and after a few years my mother moved to Wanganui to a smaller house and garden. The portrait went with her and was stored downstairs in a basement room. In 2006, with failing eyesight, my mother moved to a Rymans Healthcare Village. Her possessions were divided and none of us girls wanted the portrait, still not knowing who it was. Because I was the only daughter who lived locally Mother was keen for me to take all sorts of old bits and pieces that no one else wanted. So the portrait ended up with me in our rumpus room.

Then to our great joy in February 2017 my sister Annabel Galpin, my cousin Heather Jones and myself met with Michele Leggott in Auckland. Michele was doing very detailed research into the life of Emily Cumming Harris, her poetry, writing and paintings. Emily was a very accomplished early New Zealand artist of mainly flowers, ferns and berries.

After extensive and ongoing research by Michele and her colleagues I had a lightbulb moment when I read a letter from England from Miss Mary Mountjoy Paddon who’s mother Ann was a sister to Sarah Harris. Writing in 1922 to friends in New Zealand, Mary says: ‘We had a large painting of Mrs Harris, I think painted by her husband, (Edwin Harris), which when I heard of Mrs Harris death I cut it from the frame and sent it to the daughters.’

I thought, oh my goodness, that is probably the painting in our rumpus room.

Since then I have hung the portrait in our house. It is in quite poor condition and in need of conservation work. Fortunately my daughter Olivia is a painting conservator based in Christchurch. She has assessed the painting and is able to clean it and do repairs. It is lovely to think a 3x great-grand daughter will be restoring the portrait.

I would like the portrait to end up at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth where Sarah and Edwin Harris with their children Corbyn, Emily and Catherine took their first steps on New Zealand soil in 1841.

Portrait of Sarah Harris 7 July 2019

2 thoughts on “Portrait of Sarah Harris

    1. Isn’t it? She was my great, great, great grandmother too. It’s amazing to see this image now of my ancestor.

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