Chess, Art, Theosophy: The Studio at 34 Nile St

By Brianna Vincent

When I hear the words ‘art studio’, I think of a place filled with peaceful solitude and quiet. But Emily’s studio in the Harris home at 34 Nile Street East was a bustling social space that served a variety of purposes, some of which we can find evidence for advertised in the local papers. We had already found that in 1892 local artist and critic Colonel Benjamin Branfill held two lectures on ‘artistic anatomy’  in the Emily Harris Studio for the members of the Bishopdale Sketching Club. Then, last week, searching through PapersPast for advertisements for the Harrises’ School at Nile Street East also turned up results for Emily Harris’s Studio, giving us some further insights into how Emily enjoyed using her space.

We have ads that show a theological study reading group being hosted in the Miss Harris’s Studio at Nile Street East, with topics such as ‘reincarnation’, ‘universal religion’, and ‘The History and Ethics of India’. Seemingly open to the community at large, on 21 September 1898, the Colonist announces the ongoing event:

Theosophy- Those who may be interested in Theosophical subjects will see by advertisement in this issue that on each Wednesday evening for sometime to come, papers dealing with Theosophy will be read at Miss Harris’s Studio, Nile Street East. No charge will be made for admission.

An ad advertising the theosophy group, content as transcribed
Colonist, 21 September 1898

Delightfully, we also found that Emily’s studio functioned as the Nelson Chess Club’s clubrooms from 1897. The Nelson Chess Club had been reformed in 1894, ladies admitted free (although a charge was eventually introduced by Harris’s time), after it had ceased a few years previously. Prior to the Harris Studio, the Club had been occupying the City Council Chambers one evening a week, ever since the Club had ambushed the Mayor with a “deputation, consisting of as many of those present who could conveniently attend” (Colonist, 8 May 1894) to ask for the use of the rooms. In 1897, we find the first appearance of the Harris name attached to the club with J. P. Harris (no relation) admitted as a member, Miss Harris elected as one of the vice presidents, and Miss Harris’s Studio Room being secured for the club on Mondays and Fridays from 7 till 10 p.m.

Image transcription: THE NELSON CHESS CLUB. The annual general meeting of the members of the Nelson Chess Club was held at the City Council Chambers last night, when there was a good attendance, and the President, Mr J L Adams, occupied the chair. ' It was resolved that Messrs Humphries and t J P Harris be elected members of the club. I On the motion of Mr Connell, seconded by ' Mr Adams, it was resolved that Mr Humphries be elected President for the now ■ current year. ' Miss Harris, Mrs Bell, and Mr Flett were 1 then elected Vice-Presidents, and the following gentlemen were elected to form the Committee : — Messrs Harris, J Hounsell, Fathers, J L Adams, Petrie and Merrick. • Mr W C Riley was elected Hon Secretary and Treasurer. On the motion of Mr Flett, the cordial 1 thanks of the club were accorded the retiring 1 officers. 1 It was resolved that the subscriptions for ■ the year be as follows: — For gentleman, 1 7s 6d; for ladies, 2s 6d; and for youths ' under 20, 2s 6d. 1 It was agreed that Miss Harris' studio, in Nile Street East, be secured for the club, which will meet on Mondays and Fridays from 7 till 10 p.m.
Colonist, 14 April 1897

It is a venture that continues at the Harris Studio at least until 1899, after which the Nelson Chess Club disappears from the Colonist’s reporting. The Nelson Chess Club was a lively, musical group with the club putting on a concert and ‘conversazione’ at Rechabite Hall, in May 1897, an event Emily would have been involved in as it occurred a month after she joined.

Image Transcription: Chess Club Concert and Conversazione. — The concert and conversazione to be given at the Rechabite Hall this evening in connection with the Nelson Chess Club promises to be an unusually pleasant gathering. Several of the most popular of our musical people have promised their assistance and the members of the Club are doing their utmost to ensure success.
Colonist, 3 May 1897

The Chess Club held internal competitions, often split into teams lead by Mr Connell and Mr Flett, but also competitions between themselves and the Richmond and Foxhill Chess Clubs. Some of these tournaments involved trips out to Wakefield and Richmond and some were held closer to home. In August 1897, on a Saturday afternoon, a Town vs Country match was held at Miss Harris’s studio with 20-24 players fitting into the room or several rooms that Emily Harris had claimed for her studio in the family home.

Image Transcription: Transcription: Under the auspices of the Nelson Chess Club, a match Town v. Country has been arranged for Saturday afternoon. The match is to be played at the Club’s Rooms (Miss Harris’s Studio, Nile street), and there are to be 12 players a side
Nelson Evening Mail, 5 August 1897
Image Transcription: A team of ten chess representatives played a match at the Nelson Chess Club's rooms, Nile-street, on Saturday afternoon against an equal number of town players. Two rounds— that is two games each — were played, and at the end of the first round the visitors were one game ahead. In the second round however, the Nelson players gained a decided advantage, and the final result was Town 12 ½ games, Country 7 ½ games— representing a drawn game. A fuller report of the game is held over.
Nelson Evening Mail, 9 August 1897

Miss Harris is not mentioned in the game’s eventual write-up (Nelson Evening Mail), but she does appear in the rematch in September winning one of her two games (Colonist). In the match results around this time we can see Miss Harris both winning and losing as she participates in the club’s internal competitions as well as a member of the ‘Town’ team.

With the studio being used by the Nelson Chess Club on Monday and Friday nights and by the Theosophy group on Wednesday nights, the Miss Harris Studio was a busy place to be. And finally, at the heart of everything, is Emily Harris’s studio being an art space. Advertised in the papers, Emily opens up her studio to the public numerous times. In December 1896, she publishes this notice in the Colonist:

Image Transcription: New Zealand Wildflowers. — Interesting Exhibition. — Miss Harris, who is noted as an artist, intimates her intention of throwing her studio in Nile street East open to the public during the Christmas holidays. Miss Harris has published an excellent illustrated work on New Zealand ferns and flowers, and there is no doubt her efforts for the extension of the love for the fine arts will on the present occasion be appreciated by the public
Colonist, 23 December 1896

She opened her studio to the public, often during holiday periods over Christmas or Easter, in 1899, 1906, 1908, 1909, 1915, 1919, and the last one we found in 1921.

Image Transcription: New Zealand Wildflowers. — During the holidays, Miss Harris's studio, in Nile street East, will be open to the public, so that they may have an opportunity of inspecting the many choice paintings of New Zealand Wild Flowers, the work of this lady
Colonist, 29 December 1899
Image transcription: Miss Harris announces that her paintings of New Zealand wild flowers will be on view at her studio, Nile street East, during Carnival week from 9am till pm.There are a hundred pictures on view, this exhibition being a much larger one than is generally known. and visitors will, we are sure, feel well repaid by a visit. The studio is within a minute's walk of the Post Office, and no charge is made for admission.
Colonist, 27 January 1906
Image transcription: MISS HARRIS wishes to notify that her paintings of New Zealand Flora and other subjects will be on view, free of charge, at her studio, 34 Nile street East, for a short time.
Nelson Evening Mail, 15 February 1921

And these are just the advertisements, the diaries are full of people dropping in to see Emily and her work and there were probably many more visits and visitors which didn’t make it into the ephemera of the newspapers or diaries. At 34 Nile Street, Emily surrounded herself with readers, thinkers, chess players, and art appreciators. Her studio space was not a place of solemn solitude, but one of warmth and community.

Description: Watercolour painting of 34 Nile Street
Hugh Scott, View of 34 Nile St, Nelson. Undated watercolour. Collection of Godfrey JW and Judith Briant.

Lead writer: Brianna Vincent
Research support: Michele Leggott, Makyla Curtis

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