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