Kathryn Mercer is remembering how she and colleague Mike Gooch spotted an Emily Harris watercolour among the items in the New Plymouth hospice auction earlier this year. It was an exciting moment, and within hours pictorial collections curator Chanelle Carrick was on her way to check out the painting and to ascertain whether or not Puke Ariki would bid on it. In the event the museum acquired the watercolour for its heritage collection and we have come to New Plymouth this week to have a look.
There is no provenance for the painting. It’s a classic Emily composition of white-flowering convolvulus and blue-green heart-shaped leaves with a little view at far right to what could be a headland or an island. It was dropped off at the Waitara hospice shop and that is all anyone knows about where it has come from. Emily has signed her painting but there is no date on it or any other indication that might tell us when or where it was painted.
The new painting isn’t just about the flowering of the convolvulus. She has also painted the rusty red seedpods and the tightly furled flowers. She is showing the full life cycle of the plant in a single painting. We look for other works featuring convolvulus and discover that Emily has a fondness for drawing the trumpet-shaped flowers, furled and unfurled, and curvilinear tendrils.
First in line is her 1879 watercolour featuring fuchsia and Sophora (kōwhai): there’s the convolvulus twined with other leaves and stems. The three white trumpets sit in the same configuration. Then there is the 1882 watercolour of convolvulus, Manuka and native bluebells. Both paintings are at Puke Ariki and may have been part of Emily’s contribution to the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition and the 1882 Christchurch International Exhibition.
And of course, Emily included the convolvulus sepium in her published lithograph book New Zealand Flowers (plate 4).
Kathryn thought the new painting might be the one photographed in the family album (page 33). With the painting in front of us, we checked our reference images of the album. What we found was an extraordinary similarity, but it is not the same painting. Again, three or four convolvulus cluster in the lower centre of the composition, the little view into the distance is still in the top right, the seedpods are still a feature. It is the undergrowth and the overhanging plants that differ. Clearly the photographed painting is a close copy – we wonder if we might one day find the painting in the photograph?