Sue Needham contacted us earlier this week, excited to find that our project and her Emily Harris research are a perfect fit. Michele and Betty will be in Sydney at the Mitchell Library in a few weeks’ time. With luck, Sue will fly from Brisbane to meet us and examine Emily’s handcoloured New Zealand Flowers, Berries and Ferns.
The staff had left. The office looked ransacked with just business detritus loitering in corners. I walked out the door to my next life. Liberated to take on any of life’s great projects I found myself in the supermarket buying dinner and bumping into an old friend. She invited me home for coffee to her riotous house full of kids, dogs and paintings. I admired one in particular.
“Do you like it? I did it”
“You’re joking. I didn’t know you paint”
“I go to a class on Fridays. You should come”
“I don’t paint”
“Irrelevant. It is fun and it will keep you off the streets now that you aren’t working”
So I began to paint in this accidental, undisciplined way. My mother, Bonny (Emily May Moore) remarked “I don’t know where you get this from. No one in our family paints.” I began with still-lifes. At least the things stayed still long enough to get a reasonable, although naive likeness. I began to enjoy it though harbouring no illusion that I would ever be a serious artist, or an artist who is taken seriously. I was too many other things to too many other people: a journalist, a publicist, a business woman, a mother. I was scratching time for it in the cracks in my life and I was nearly fifty!
I drifted into the Art History department at the University of Queensland doing a subject about Australian colonial art. And, there they were. Paintings which were eerily similar to one hanging in my house which I had inherited from my old Aunty Dot (Augusta Dorothy Moore). Now I looked at it with more critical eyes and turned it over to find it was the work of one Edwin Harris of New Zealand.
I rang my mother who knew nothing of him and dear Dot was dead. Mr Google told me little about him other than he was the father of the more famous EMILY HARRIS. Who? Another memory surfaced of some papers a much older cousin (Graham Griffin, son of Constance) had given me years before which I vaguely thought contained a family tree. Where on earth were they…in Dot’s old dresser, of course. Aha! An Alfred William Moore married Catherine Harris and her father was Edwin Harris and he was my mother’s great grandfather, so Emily Harris was her great aunt. Wow. I had a painting on my wall by my great great grandfather. It took me by the hand and sent me in search of Emily.
I was nearly fifty when I picked up this old bundle of papers sent to me nearly twenty years before. Now I paid attention. The rest of them were extracts from Emily’s diaries written by a woman fighting for her own space to paint. A woman who took her own talent seriously despite an ambivalent world. A woman scratching for time in the cracks of her life more than one hundred years ago. Across time, countries and genetics, my great great Aunt Emily spoke to me. She was fifty one or two when she penned the words in a tight script in school exercise books, rushed often and scribbling, but compelled to speak.
Sue Needham (Tregeagle, Moore, Harris)