Sisters at a Glance #7 Ellen Harris

By Michele Leggott and Brianna Vincent

Close Up of Ellen Harris. Harris, Miss. Nelson Provincial Museum. 7922

Ellen Harris
28 February 1851-29 March 1895

Ellen my seventh daughter was born. (Sarah Harris to sister Emma Jane Hill. New Plymouth, [1852 or later])

Amongst the work of Miss Ellen Harris, the portrait of a nun, several small paintings of scenery, and the earthenware pipes in Egyptian and Arabesque designs call for notice. (Colonist 24 Dec 1889: 5 [sup])

Only three copies of the fern numbers came & they wanted to know if they were to be bound or loose — did you ever know such idiots? That will make another three months before they come out, of course we wrote that they were to be bound & if not too late to alter the colour of the backs, we have sent a pattern. (Ellen Harris, letter to Emily Cumming Harris in New Plymouth. Nelson, 8 Jan 1890, quoted in Emily’s diary)

Dear Concie
Thanks for letter which we were very pleased to receive. We are very busy seeing about the exhibition, we have taken one of the rinks which is a very large place. We have had lots of lovely things promised already & when it is all done it can’t fail to look very attractive but there is a tremendous lot of work. One gentleman came this week & offered his services & I think he will arrange the part we have set out for afternoon teas, which we intend having so that there will be plenty for our girl friends to do. All the Moores have promised to help & are helping now. Bertie has been cutting out large letters to put on flags. I am so glad Ruth is coming & I wish Fannie could come too – tell her to write to Harry at once & ask him to pay her passage. I’m sure he might – & with her nice blue serge & white dresses she will always look nice. Ruth must wear her warm dress & bring her light ones as some days are quite cold. She will have a good deal of the exhibition but some of the girls will take her about if we can’t. I wish you could all three be here & Gretchen too, what a time we could have. Will you get the recipe for Auntie cakes from Bel? Frances wants to make some, we shall have to make a lot of cakes. I have just made a pretty muslin for the opening, heliotrope. We mean to have a grand opening if we can get it. We shall have to pay a man to take tickets & sleep there at night; if your father came we could have him, let us know if there is any chance of his coming. The excursion tickets are issued from 28 January to 4th February & last a fortnight. I expect the steamer would leave on 26th. I am a good deal better lately but my cough is still very bad & so is F’s. It is a pity that she will have to leave directly the Jubilee is over as she will have to be all ready packed up – Dr Cressy is expected this week he didn’t come by the last boat as the lawyers wouldn’t finish. Emily is quite well again and so is Papa. Our fern trees have grown so much they are above the veranda, I thought they would look small after N.P. but they don’t. Such lots of people wear hats made of net or tulle or muslin, even buttercloth looks light and pretty – the frames are made of wire. Mrs Pridham sent us such pretty cards mine is something quite ne & now I must finish, with love to all your affectionate Aunt Ellen.
Let someone write next mail & tell us what your father will do.
(Ellen Harris, letter to niece Constance Moore in New Plymouth. Nelson, 10 Jan [1892])

Ellen Harris (1851-1895) was the youngest daughter of Edwin and Sarah Harris. She was born 28 Feb and baptised 15 June 1851 at St Mary’s Anglican Church, New Plymouth. Ellen was named for her paternal aunt Ellen Susan Murray née Harris. She became an artist and teacher like her sisters Emily and Frances but her work has not been recovered. She was a member of the Bishopdale Sketching Club and a contributor to the club’s first catalogue in 1893. Ellen died 29 Mar 1895 in Nelson and was buried in Wakapuaka Cemetery. Her death certificate notes cause of death as chronic phthisis (Tuberculosis) of the lungs.

Photo 1

Davis, William Henry, 1837-1875: Portrait of Ellen Harris. Alexander Turnbull Library. PA2-0591.

Portrait of Ellen Harris standing behind a chair, looking to the right of the camera, one arm resting on the top of the chair and the other propped up with her hand resting on her chin. Ellen’s hair is done up in elaborate braids. For jewellery, she wears a ring on her right hand and a two layer necklace of dark beads featuring a cross. She wears a dark dress, the lacey collars at her sleeves flare out in the pattern of large many-petalled flowers.

This photo was taken by William Davis (1837- 1875), probably while he operated his Nelson studio. William Davis also made a portrait of Frances Harris.

Alexander Turnbull Library notes:

Photographer, London, Nelson and Auckland fl 1850s-1870s. Born London, England, 21 Sep 1837, son of William Henry Whitmore Davis (1812-1901) and Elizabeth Davis (née Mose). Worked with his father in a studio at 3 Bentinck Place, Portland Town, London, ca 1857-1858.

Emigrated to New Zealand in 1858 and set up a studio in Mulgrave street, Wellington. Operated studios in Nelson 1860-ca 1872, then moved to Auckland, where he also practised as a photographer. He may also have practised as a photographer in New Plymouth.

Married Jane Sclanders Burns, eldest daughter of John Burns, on 5 Aug 1861 (Colonist, 9 Aug 1861, p 2). Died by drowning 30 August 1875, after jumping from the ship Hawea in Manukau Harbour. [Sources: Christine O’Brien, personal communication; Directory of London photographers 1841-1908.]

The inscription on the back of this photo in the Alexander Turnbull Library reads ‘Kate and Alfred with Nellie’s best love… Ellen Harris.’ i.e. Ellen inscribes the photo to her sister Catherine (Kate) and brother-in-law Alfred Moore of New Plymouth. The photo is also featured in the Family Album, see below, on page 12 bottom right without an inscription.

Ellen Harris in the Family Album, Page 12, Bottom Right.

Photo 2

Unnamed Harris Sister in the Family Album. Page 12, Top Right

Portrait of Ellen Harris, she stands in a dark dress with a large lacy collar that goes up high on her neck and covers the top of the dress and lacy white cuffs at her wrists. She wears a wide brimmed hat, tilted high, with some kind of decoration at the front. In her hands she holds a delicate fan.

On the verso are details advertising the photography studio with some of the studio’s accomplishments:

59740. Honourable mention for portraits and views Nelson Exhibition 1873 Nelson Academy of photographic art.
W. E. Brown Hardy St Nelson.
Honourable mention for portraits Hokitika exhibition 1873.
Copies may be had by sending above number. Copyright Marion, Imp Paris, Depose.

W.E. Brown was William Brown who operated a photography studio in Nelson. From Auckland Art Gallery:

William Brown (c 1840-1922)
William Brown was a noted photographer who originally had moved from Auckland in 1865 to start this photography studio in Nelson. Brown specialised in studio portraits (around 6,000 of these were taken during 1865-1892), including the very popular carte de visite. He also took scenic and event photographs including The Nelson Provincial Museum’s earliest image of an immigrant ship, the Adamant in 1874, showing fifty immigrants on deck. An excellent record keeper and portrait specialist Brown is the only early Nelson photographer who consistently recorded client and date details, making positive identification possible. He retired from photography in the early 1890s and acquired a sheep station in the Tasman, west of Nelson. He died in Nelson in June 1922.

This photo is on the ‘Harris sisters’ page in the Family Album. The girl in the photo most closely resembles Ellen out of all the sisters so we are confident that this is Ellen. We had initially hoped that this might be a photo of Augusta. But as it is post 1873, which we know by the commendations for the photographer advertised on the verso, it cannot be Augusta as she died in 1870.

Photo 3

Harris, Miss. Nelson Provincial Museum. 4267

Portrait of Ellen Harris in partial profile, her body facing away as she stands with her arms propped up on a pedestal in front of her, but with her head tilted towards the camera. Her hair is drawn softly back behind her head in a loose low braiding. She wears a dark dress with a continuous geometric print and a high white ruffled collar and pale ribbon around her neck. From her ear hangs a long dangling flower earring. It starts as a medium hoop above a single-layer six-petalled flower, followed by a bead with two spokes of metal or wire going down from it that connect to an even larger and weightier flower of 8 petals with 3 layers of different petals around the centre.

In family album copy, the photo has the verso ‘English & Continental Photographic Artists Nelson New Zealand.’

English and Continental Photographic Artists, in Trafalgar Street, Nelson was created by William Gibbs and Theodor Bloch (sometimes spelt Block) in 1876, Gibbs later selling his interest to Bloch in 1878, and later sold onto James Akersten in 1881 (Canterbury Photography). This particular photo is part of Nelson Provincial Museum’s Bloch Collection, probably dating it between 1878 and 1881.

Nelson Provincial Museum on Theodor Bloch:

Theodor Thorlacius Bloch (1844-1935): soldier and adventurer.

Bloch, whose name is sometimes spelt Block, was born in Denmark where he was knighted for his role as a lieutenant in the 1864 war against Prussia and Austria. Bloch emigrated from Copenhagen to New Zealand in 1867 and fought in the New Zealand Wars. He took over the management of Alexander Fletcher’s studio in Nelson, The Nelson Photographic Room, in 1867. From 1868 to 1872, in partnership with his future brother-in-law, William Brickell Gibbs, he operated Gibbs & Bloch in Trafalgar Street, Nelson. He moved to Australia c1880. The museum has a collection of approximately 2,500 negatives and several hundred original prints taken by Bloch.

Again, this photo is on the ‘Harris sisters’ page in the Family Album and resembles Ellen the most out of all the sisters. As it is post-1876, by the creation of the studio inscribed on the verso in the family album copy and being most likely taken 1878-81 by its inclusion in the Bloch collection, it can’t be Augusta who died in 1870. The Bloch Glass Plate Negative pictured above shows the most detail but is significantly darker than what the printed effect would be, which we can partially gauge by the photo in the family album and NPM version on the website:

Harris, Miss. Nelson Provincial Museum. 4267. Website Version
Ellen Harris in Family Album. Page 12, Bottom Left

Photo 4

Ellen Harris in the Family Album. Page 7. Cabinet photo, handcoloured: inscription ‘Ellen Harris.’

Ellen sits in a white dress, surrounded by plants and flowers, her long dark hair loose and free and crowned with a purple and gold hairpiece. Strands of large gold coloured beads wrap around her throat and white pearl beads adorn her wrists as she holds a long pearl and flower wand in her lap. Pink, blue, red, and yellow butterflies are in amongst in the scene of large and small leaf branches, fluffy toetoe, and leafy plants coloured in greens and browns, with the large leaf behind Ellen’s back also splattered with pink-ish red amongst the green.

On the verso: ‘English and Continental Photographic Artist Nelson NZ – In Block’

From the verso, we could identify the photo as belonging to Theodor ‘Block’ Bloch. However, Nelson Provincial Museum which has a black-and-white copy identifies the photo as being by James Akersten, who bought the ‘English and Continental Photographic Artist’ studio from Bloch in 1881.

The Prow on James Akersten:

Landscape and studio photographer, James Akersten spent many years living and working around Havelock and Nelson and many of his photographs are in collections at the Nelson Provincial Museum and the Marlborough Museum.

James was born in London on 8 August 1855. His family travelled steerage on the Water Nymph, arriving in Nelson on 16 December, 1865 to join his uncle William.

Around 1869, James began working as an assistant to William Davis, a Nelson photographer. Photography was very new in the 1860s but evolving rapidly. James owned his own photography studio in Nelson for a short time in the early 1880s [The English and Continental Photographic Artist] and then went to work for William Tyree. Here he received excellent training, particularly in outdoor and scenic photography.

This is a cabinet photo which became popular after 1870, typically larger than a carte de visite and mounted on card stock. We don’t have information on who coloured the photo, probably by the studio itself. Some studios appeared to offer colouring services, William Gibbs, of Bloch and Gibbs who ran the studio before Akersten, went on to run another ‘English and Continental Photographic Artist’ studio of the same name in Wellington that offered ‘Photographs retouched, colored, and enambled’ (Wairarapa Daily Times).

Photo 5

Harris, Miss. Nelson Provincial Museum. 7922

The glass plate negative of Ellen’s cabinet photo from Nelson Provincial Museum, details lost in the family album coloured version are now visible or more apparent in this black and white copy. The purple and gold headpiece that Ellen wears is in the shape of butterflies, reminiscent of a crown. The white fabric of Ellen’s dress is thin and floaty and light. We can see the texture of her hair, the waves down her back and the little curls on her forehead. We can see the details of the foliage and fabric butterflies in crisp clarity. The colour is lost but so much detail is regained.

There was great excitement when Makyla spotted this portrait in the Nelson Provincial Museum as we started looking for photos of the Harris sisters back in March. It’s such a beautiful photo that exemplifies why finding new photos and new photos of photos we know exist is so rewarding. Extra details and new elements become visible and rise to the surface.

With this being the last post in the Sisters at a Glance series, we’d like to take the time to say that the series has been a joy to put together and we hope it offers a glimpse into the lives of the Harris sisters. From hunting through archives for familiar faces, to researching photographers, to writing up these posts, it has been a rewarding journey and we’re excited to have been able to share it with you.

Sisters at a Glance: Navigation
#0 Introduction
#1 Emily Cumming Harris
#2 Catherine Harris
#3 Unnamed Daughter
#4 Frances Emma Harris
#5 Mary Rendel Harris
#6 Augusta Harris
#7 Ellen Harris: Here

Lead writers: Michele Leggott and Brianna Vincent
Research Support: Dasha Zapisetskaya, Makyla Curtis (Past), Betty Davis (Past)

Leave a Reply

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