Harris & Sons of Plymouth, Devon


By Nigel Overton

Harris & Sons of Plymouth, Devon: From House Painters & Glaziers to Decorators, Furnishers, Picture Frame Makers, Gallery Owners and sometime suppliers of Artists’ Materials, Fancy Goods and Stationery.

Having by chance recently come across an advertisement for Harris & Sons in a circa 1930 Plymouth guidebook, I was prompted to check out some other period publications on my shelves for more of the same. Obviously, it helps my being mostly ‘locked-down’ at home and keen to find new things to do…!

ILLUSTRATION OF c.1930 ADVERT (from Plymouth Incorporated Municipal Association Guide c.1930 – in Author’s collection)

This advert, confirms the firm of Harris and Sons was founded in Plymouth in 1770. The limited amount of available online content from the biography of James Rendel Harris (1852-1941), ‘The Daily Discoveries of a Biblical Scholar and Manuscript Hunter’, by Alessandro Falcetta, helps to fill in a little more background.

The Plymouth business was founded by Edwin Harris’ grandfather James Harris. By 1820 it was based on The Parade and was being run by James’ sons, John Harris and James Pasco Harris (1771-1846). John Harris dies in 1821 and James’ interests are eventually taken on by his own son, and Edwin’s brother, Henry Marmaduke Harris (1815-1895). Under Henry’s stewardship the business relocates to 197 Union Street, Plymouth

As the nineteenth century progresses two of Henry’s sons join the business as partners, namely Henry Vigurs (b.1851) and George Chambré (b.1856).  In due course the business becomes Harris and Sons. Falcetta helps to clarify the roles of the two brothers: “Henry Vigurs took care of the house decorating and picture framing side”. Indeed, Henry became President of the National Association of Master House Painters and Decorators in 1905.  Somewhat less clearly Falcetta adds “George Chambré ran a shop selling artist’s colourmen [sic] and, later, stationery products too.”

From advertisements dating from 1930 to 1950, it is apparent that the selling of art supplies remained of importance. A little bit of desktop research has also highlighted (via eBay) the fact that Harris & Sons were publishing and selling postcards during what is known as the ‘Golden Age’ for that medium.

St Andrew’s Church, Plymouth (no date). Published by Harris & Sons, 70 George Street, Plymouth (from eBay 07.05.20)

Picture framing and, in time, the running of a successful picture or painting gallery became important facets of the business. Falcetta states that “when the firm agreed to act as the local agent for the Bristol Art Union, a house was taken and turned into a picture gallery.” It is also true the say that when the initial enquiry from New Zealand about Edwin’s painting of the interior of St Andrew’s Church were first being discussed at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, the two Art curator’s very quickly made the link between the Harris family and the many paintings in the City collection which feature labels for the firm Harris & Sons. I am also reminded by my friend Clive Charlton that one of these happens to be an oil painting by Jules Girardet depicting Napoleon held aboard HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound in 1815. This artwork was in fact acquired by the City Museum and Art Gallery through Harris and Sons in 1909.

Interestingly, two other somewhat tangential Harris & Sons links with the City Museum and Art Gallery have also cropped-up online. Firstly, Alfred James Caddie, the Museum’s second Curator, went on to work for the Harris & Sons in their Picture Gallery. (And whilst on the topic – the first and founding Curator here, the biologist Thomas Vere Hodgson, had a fleeting New Zealand connection having sailed with Captain Scott’s ‘Discovery’ Expedition…).  Secondly, the recent building works which are helping to turn Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery into ‘The Box’ exposed the planked backing boards of the original Edwardian art gallery spaces. It turns out that Harris and Sons were involved with specialist decorating work on Plymouth’s first purpose built museum – and it was one of their apprentice paper or hessian hangers, Ernest Jonas Back (born 1895), who left behind his name and the date 28 August 1910 in the gallery; graffiti that was hidden under his work for over 100 years.

Back to the whereabouts of Harris and Sons’ Plymouth business premises, Falcetta says that the firm relocates to 70 George Street in the 1890s. This indeed is where they are still to be found up until the Plymouth ‘Blitz’ of 1941, when they were bombed-out. Other old advertisements for the firm appear to broadly confirm this, as do the few illustrations of contemporary (often dated) Harris & Son picture labels, that can be found online.

Harris & Sons, Frame Makers etc. – Picture / Painting Labels, dated June 1908 and March 1912
(Left: Prometheus Antiques / Right: unlocated source – both found online 07.05.20)

An advertisement dating from circa 1934 still has Harris & Sons at 70 George Street. Further supporting this, in May 1935 the ‘London Gazette’ announced a change in the business. Henry Vigurs Harris is still involved, but alongside him now as partners are George Rendel Harris and Leonard Harris. Kenneth Mortimer Angus, Henry’s nephew, the son of his sister Mabel Septima Harris (b.1860?), is retiring as a partner. However, at this date, the given business address is still 70 George Street. Also listed are Nos. 2 and 3 George Lane, presumably properties close to the George Street premises. There is also a first mention of Kirkby Yard at Endsleigh Place, near Portland Square – a site now most likely subsumed by the City’s University campus.

ILLUSTRATION c.1934 ADVERT (from Plymouth Municipal Incorporated Association Guide, c.1934 – Author’s Collection)

Finally, for now – and also referenced online – there is an indication that Harris and Sons became a Limited Company on 3 February 1944. A Harris & Sons advert dating from circa 1950 now gives their main works at Endsleigh Place, but also with showrooms in the City suburbs at both Peverell and Mutley Plain.

ILLUSTRATION c.1950 ADVERT (from City of Plymouth Guide,1950 – Author’s Collection)

Confirming these changes, the company’s post-War picture labels are of simple, period design. The red text now gives their business name as Harris & Sons (Plymouth) Ltd., with the address of Endsleigh Works, Endsleigh Place. Plymouth.

Harris & Sons (Plymouth) Ltd. – Post-War Picture Labels
(Left: vylla.co.uk / Right: Invaluable.com – both sourced online 07.05.20)

Lead writer: Nigel Overton, formerly City Heritage Curator at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery


11 thoughts on “Harris & Sons of Plymouth, Devon

  1. I have found a picture of turners Crossing the Brook with Harris & Sons Mutley address label on the back , I think it’s a print ..but not sure how I can find out anymore ?

    1. Hi Corinne! We’d love to see the pictures (my email is bvin710@aucklanduni.ac.nz) if you’d like to share them. We got in touch with Nigel Overton and he expects that it’s a framed print and he had some information on the labelling and the background of the painting:

      “Harris and Son appear to have been a go-to-place in Plymouth and West Devon/East Cornwall for framing or reframing. They also sold paintings and prints and, I think, might have done (or rather facilitated) some conservation works too. So, the Harris and Son label, in its different formats, is not that uncommon.   

      As for JMW Turner’s ‘Crossing the Brook’, well it’s a painting based on one of his sketching and painting visits to Devon and Cornwall in the 1810s. It features the bridge over the River Tamar at Gunnislake. There was an exhibition about his SW works at Plymouth Museum about ten years ago. Prof Sam Smiles co-authored the catalogue Light into Colour: Turner in the South West (ISBN: 9781854376329) for the Tate. I expect you might also be able to find some associated information online. 

      You can certainly explore the Turner field/sketch books of the period online. Plymouth and Dock-Devonport subjects  feature (including the Dockyard and River Tamar, River Plym – Cattewater and Laira, the Citadel, Smeaton’s Tower and Mewstone). Later, some scenes were formally engraved and printed. A few became paintings. 

      I do (or did) a talk…!  Also, by one of those remarkable coincidences – and that seem to happen rather too frequently in the museum and research world – I have recently been sharing thoughts on a Turner sketch of Dock-Devonport with Dorothy Kirk. Dorothy is a local Councillor who lives in Gunnislake. She also co-authored the book Turner in the Tamar Valley: Following in Turner’s Footsteps Along the River Tamar (2009). Essentially, this book is an investigation of the painting ‘Crossing The Brook’. Although out of print, I am advised standard priced (about £10) copies can still be obtained from the Tamar Valley Centre in Drakewalls, Gunnislake – currently closed.”

  2. good evening,
    I write from Italy.
    I found, in my grandmother’s house, a picture of sheep in the countryside.
    behind this painting is the “Harris & Sons” label.
    you can help me understand how this painting arrived in this part of the world, in Italy and precisely in Pescara, 250 km northeast of Rome, on the Adriatic coast.Can I send you photos of the Harries & Sons painting and tag?
    Thanks for all

  3. Hi
    I’ve found a Harris and son, green and white label, 70 George St, Plymouth, frame with a picture of 4 children sandwiched between 2 convex glass; there are 2 labels, 1on the back of glass, and 1 on back of frame.

    The label on the back of the picture, inside the frame details, H. Vigurs Harris, George.C. Harris and G. Rendel Harris, with a No: 48019, plus measurements and day written in pencil; the outer label details a No: 48079 and Date: 27/1/? Unreadable year written in ink.

    Please could you help date this for me please, I can send photos of needed.

    Thank you

    1. Hi,
      By accident I have found your question. I have written a biography of James Rendel Harris and I suppose your picture could be dated to the late 1850s or early 1860s, when Rendel Harris and his brother Vigurs were still children.
      Now, may I ask you to send me a copy of your picture? I have searched in many archives but never found a picture of Rendel Harris (I think that “G. Rendel Harris” is wrong for “J. Rendel Harris) as a child. I would really appreciate it.
      Thank you

  4. I too have found a painting in a large gilt frame whilst clearing my father’s house. My dad was born in Plymouth and I know he bought the painting there. He told me it is a Dutch artist, and it’s a good oil painting of a harbour but I can’t read the signature! The label on the back reads Harris and sons, Endsleigh Works, and I believe it was bought in the 1950’s.

  5. Hello
    My name is Jessica, i do a lot of buying and selling on eBay and i found when I was hunting for treasures. What I believe to be an original botanical tapestry..
    On the back is a Harris & Sons green stamp. Dated 5.4.35 No. 8539.
    Its a real tapestry not a print could it have been created by Emily C. Harris. Theirs no signature. Id love to send you a photograph.
    jruthj20@yahoo.com for my email. many thanks. Jessica Jones

  6. Have a 19th century ooc fishing landscape with Harris & Sons Plymouth label. It is signed but having trouble identifying the artist? See photos.

  7. Hello, I have a painting in a frame with a Harris and son’s label. The painting is done on a hard wood. I would love to send a picture of it. I could not find a signature.

  8. Good evening, I stumbled upon this website when I was looking up info on Kenneth M Angus. I have quite an old watercolor painting done by Angus himself of Port Issac, Cornwall. The label on the back reads: KENNETH M. ANGUS, 1 MAITLAND DRIVE, HARTLEY VALE, PLYMOUTH, 5 1/2 GUINEAS ( 5-15-6), “PORT ISAAC CORNWALL” , WATER COLOUR.

    Does anyone have any information about him as a painter?

    Thanks, Diane Richmond, Virginia USA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *