Treasure Hunting on Trade Me
By Catherine Field-Dodgson
At the end of June this year, a friend alerted me to one of Emily Cumming Harris’s botanical prints for sale on the Trade Me website. I knew that the Alexander Turnbull Library had issued some print editions of Emily’s works in 1968, so I quickly jumped online to have a look. But while I was admiring the Rangiora print, another listing quickly caught my eye: a complete set of Emily’s three books printed in 1890: New Zealand Flowers, Ferns and Berries.
The listing stated that the books were “very early New Zealand items which are very rarely found”. The three volumes looked to be in ok condition, with a fair amount of foxing (spots and brown marks) on each of the covers – not surprising given their age. I thought ‘what an interesting find, one to keep an eye on’, then promptly forgot about it and the auction closed. As soon as I realised I’d missed it, I messaged the seller and asked him to please re-list it. Thankfully I was the only person interested in purchasing the set, and a few days later the books safely arrived via courier.
Although the three books didn’t have anything special tucked away inside their pages, the New Zealand Flowers volume had two handwritten inscriptions on the front cover:
“Donald, with best wishes from M. M. Whitehorn 1940” and “Mrs Simcox with every good wish from M. G. H.” Curious about the provenance of the books, I emailed the New Plymouth-based seller asking where he got them from. He replied with “I have had them sitting here for several years now, bought these in a garage sale in a box lot”. I wasn’t sure if this information would be helpful to the research team, but emailed Michele just in case she wanted to add it to her records, along with photos of the inscriptions.
I wasn’t expecting to hear anything further, so was impressed when I received an email from the research team a few days later: Dasha had found “M. M. Whitehorn” on Papers Past, winning prizes for tapestry and cross-stitch embroidery in Auckland (Auckland Star, 24 February 1939, p10). Another great complementary connection to Emily’s earlier examples of ‘fancy work’!
Then the following day, Brianna emailed and revealed the identity of ‘M M Whitehorn’: she was Milicent Mary Whitehorn, the granddaughter of the well-known missionaries Elizabeth and William Colenso. Thanks to family papers in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Brianna also discovered that the ‘Mrs Simcox’ mentioned on the cover inscription was Milicent’s mother: Frances Mary Simcox.
Frances Mary Simcox was the daughter of Elizabeth (1821-1904) (missionary, teacher, translator) and William Colenso (1811-1899) (missionary, printer, politician). The Hawkes Bay Museum has copies of letters that Frances Mary and her brother wrote to their father in te reo Māori as children in 1851.
In a neat link back to William Colenso, Michele pointed out that he described and named the plant ‘Clianthus maximus’, the larger-leaved and ruby-red species of the kākābeak/kōwhai ngutukākā genus. Named for its clusters of beautiful red flowers, the kākābeak is one of the plants that Emily included in New Zealand Flowers, which she sometimes coloured by hand. Betty Davis wrote an excellent blogpost about the plant and Emily’s relationship to it here.
Thanks to the great work done by the research team, we now know that the Trade Me volumes were given to Frances Mary Simcox (1844-1928) by M.G.H (unknown). At a later time, they were then given by Frances’s daughter, Milicent Mary Whitehorn (1874-1959) to Donald (unknown) in 1940.
These three books turn out to have a fascinating provenance, which helps to build a bigger picture of Emily’s world and its inhabitants. It is incredible to think about how many hands have leafed through these volumes over the past 130 years, and I feel very privileged to be their current custodian.
Catherine Field-Dodgson has a master’s degree in art history from Victoria University of Wellington, supervised by Roger Blackley. She’s previously worked as a press secretary and events organiser, and lives in Lower Hutt with her partner and their two children. Catherine is currently researching her 2x great-grandmother Keita Halbert/Wyllie/Gannon (Rongowhakaata).
A short postscript: when the books arrived, I went searching again for the Rangiora print on Trade Me, but found it had sold. I have to confess I got the giggles after hearing that Brianna was given a Rangiora print for her birthday last week… sourced from Trade Me!