Emily Harris and Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull

By Michele Leggott

The Turnbull Library in Wellington holds a letter from Emily Harris to Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull (1868-1918), the collector and bibliophile whose name and collections were given to the library when it was established in 1919. Emily’s letter in the file of inward correspondence is accompanied by a clipping of her obituary in the Nelson Evening Mail and reads as follows:

Harris, Emily Cumming. MS letter to Alexander Turnbull, Wellington, NZ. Written in Nelson, NZ, 1 Nov 1899. Clipping of Emily Harris obituary inserted after 1925. ATL Inward correspondence, EC Harris, MS-papers-0057-032.

Nile St East
Nelson, Nov 1st  /99

Dear Mr Turnbull

I have just finished colouring the three books for you, Flowers Berries & Ferns, and am sending them by this mail, I am sorry to have kept you waiting so long but have been hard at work painting ever since my return from Wellington, some of the books being wanted to send to England for Christmas presents,

Books of New Zealand Flowers Berries Ferns 10/ each,
£ 1  1  ,,

Lady Ranfurly had two sets (six books).

I hope if you come to Nelson you will call and look at my Father’s paintings, I find it difficult to send you a list of them, many very interesting and dating from the early days onwards, landscapes, buildings seascapes etc etc, in oils & water colours –

Hoping the books will reach you safely

I remain

Sincerely Yours
Emily Cumming Harris

So we were on the lookout for a handcoloured set of New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Fernswhen we visited the Turnbull Library in February 2018. Sure enough, among the three full sets of Emilys books held at Turnbull is one that has been coloured and signed on each title page and bound into a single volume. The volume carries Alexander Turnbull’s book plate, confirming its association with Emily’s letter of November 1899. Indeed, a pencilled ’(c. 1899)’ on the title page of each of the three books (Flowers, Berries, Ferns) indicates that Turnbull librarians have linked letter and books. It seems that Alexander Turnbull owned not one but two sets of New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns. Bound in the same green leather with gold detailing is an uncoloured set from Turnbull’s personal library, carrying a different book plate. Our research notes assess the links between the uncoloured and coloured volumes:

New Zealand Flowers, Berries and Ferns. E.C. Harris. Un-coloured.
(Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463)

  • All three bound in one volume. Uncoloured.
  • Dark green leather around spine and on corners, lighter green fabric in between with gold lines. Faded on spine.
  • Gold on top of pages.
  • Title, author, “Un-coloured,” and “Nelson” down spine in gold.
  • Front cover has a small rip top right, scratch on back cover, otherwise pretty good condition.
  • Inner cover: Blue spotted marbling.
  • Bookplate: “Fortuna Favet Audaci Ex Libris Alexander H Turnbull,” personal library bookplate. Later library stamp date 7 Jan 1940, penciled underneath 1919.
  • First pages detached from spine.
Bookplate of Uncoloured Copy. Photo by Catherine Field-Dodgson. Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463.
Bookplate of Uncoloured Copy. Photo by Catherine Field-Dodgson. Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463.

New Zealand Flowers, Berries, and Ferns. E. C. Harris.
(Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463)

  • All three bound in one volume. Coloured.
  • Same binding as above item (Green leather, fabric, and gold detailing).
  • Title, author, and Nelson on spine, different font from above, different design.
  • Gold on top of pages.
  • Little wear on cover but quite faded spine.
  • Inner cover: green and gold ripple marbling. Library bookplate (different one) and date 7 Jan 1940.
  • In better condition than above item, pages attached to spine.
  • Penciled date 1919 on first page.
  • Double title pages (New Zealand Flowers), first on thick green paper with penciled “C. 1.”
  • Second regular paper and flowers coloured (watercolour). Heavy foxing around page edges (blotches).
  • Signed Emily C Harris in ink. Penciled date (different hand) “(c. 1899).”
  • All 12 plates but few unfinished (not fully coloured in).
  • Penciled symbol on thick green paper looks like C with line through it.
  • Double title pages (Berries), first on thick green paper with penciled “C. 2”
  • In better condition – less foxing. Second title page regular paper and coloured, signed Emily C. Harris. Penciled date “(c. 1899).
  • All 12 plates, all fully coloured in.
  • Double title page same as others (Ferns), top right “C. 3.” Second coloured and signed Emily C Harris. Penciled date (c.1899).
  • Blotchy foxing, gets worse towards end of book.
  • All 12 plates, all fully coloured in.
Bookplate of Coloured Copy. Photo by Catherine Field-Dodgson. Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463.
Bookplate of Coloured Copy. Photo by Catherine Field-Dodgson. Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463.
New Zealand Flowers, Berries, and Ferns. E. C. Harris. Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463
New Zealand Flowers, Berries, and Ferns. E. C. Harris. Turnbull NZ Pacific, P q581.9931 HAR 1890, item barcode 2636-2037463

In addition to these book purchases Alexander Turnbull owned three of Emily’s large format botanical flower paintings, now held by the library. They are:

C-024-003. Harris, Emily Cumming, 1837?-1925 :Pleurophyllum speciosa. Painted from a plant brought [by Mr E. Lukins, from Adams Island, Auckland Islands]. E. C. Harris, 1896.. [Collection]

C-024-004. Harris, Emily Cumming, 1837?-1925 :Anthericum Rossii / E. C. Harris [1896?]. [Collection]

C-024-010. Harris, Emily Cumming, 1837?-1925 :Aristotelia racemosa (makomako). [1880s or 1890s]. [Collection]

Lead Writer: Michele Leggott
Research Support: Many thanks to Catherine Field-Dodgson for visiting the copies in person and supplying photos!

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