By Michele Leggott
Among the artists and photographers listed in the Nelson, Marlborough and Westland volume of the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1906) is an entry for Emily Harris:
Harris, Miss Emily Cumming, Artist, Nile Street, Nelson. Miss Harris was born at Plymouth, England, and is a daughter of the late Mr. Edwin Harris, one of the first surveyors of Taranaki. She was educated in New Plymouth, but at the time of the Taranaki war was sent to Hobart, and re-joined her parents some years later in Nelson, where she has resided ever since. Miss Harris studied drawing in Hobart, and learned painting from her father, to whose careful instruction she owes her skill, and from whom she inherits her talent. In 1873, Miss Harris forwarded a number of paintings of New Zealand flora to an exhibition held in Nelson and Hokitika, and she gained a silver medal on each occasion. She forwarded a number of paintings to the Intercolonial Exhibition at Sydney in 1879, and received a first award and a medal, and also a first award at Melbourne in the following year. At the Anglo-Colonial Exhibition in London, Miss Harris obtained a general award with other exhibitors, and she has received many awards at Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington for works in oil and water-colour. Miss Harris, in conjunction with the late Mr. Jackson, of Nelson, published a very useful and interesting book, entitled “New Zealand Flowers, Berries and Ferns”; and she has also designed New Zealand floral autograph At-Home books.
At almost 70 years of age, Emily was profiling herself as a notable botanical artist with a career spanning several decades and implying an active role in the present. Indeed, 1906 appears to have been a signature year for her. At the beginning of the year she advertised another studio exhibition of her work:
Miss Harris announces that her paintings of New Zealand wild flowers will be on view at her studio, Nile street East, during Carnival week from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. There are a hundred pictures on view, this exhibition being a much larger one than is generally known, and visitors will, we are sure, feel well repaid by a visit. The studio is within a minute’s walk of the Post Office, and no charge is made for admission. (Colonist 27 Jan 1906: 3)
In October Emily sent at least 12 paintings to the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch which opened 1 November 1906 and ran until 15 April 1907. The local newspaper noted her contribution:
Miss E. Harris, of Nile street, whose paintings of native flowers have achieved a colonial reputation, is sending to the Exhibition, at the request of the Commissioner of the West Coast court, a collection of twelve studies of native flowers. Many people are under the impression that New Zealand has few native flowers, but the collection which is being sent by Miss Harris should dispel that fallacy. A great many varieties have been most artistically grouped together, in some cases the surroundings and conditions under which the flowers grow being depicted in the back ground. Two panels of Antarctic flowers have also been painted by Miss Harris, and these will be hung in the art gallery. (Colonist 6 Oct 1906: 2)
We might expect such a sizeable submission, some of it in the West Coast court and two panels hanging in the art gallery, to appear in catalogues for the exhibition. The Grey & Westland Division does note Emily’s work but offers no details and misprints one of her initials: ‘Harris, Miss E. E., Nelson – 12 paintings of native flowers, by exhibitor.’ The Fine Art Section of the Official Catalogue of the New Zealand International Exhibition (1906-07) lists other Nelson artists and their paintings by title and price but includes no mention of Emily among the 355 ‘Artists of the Commonwealth of Australasia and New Zealand’ whose work was exhibited in Christchurch.
However, Emily herself may have left traces of her contributions to the International Exhibition in signing and dating three large format oil paintings that survive in personal and public collections. Each painting carries the signature ‘E.C. Harris’ and the date ‘1906.’
So there is the panel of Antarctic (actually Sub-Antarctic) flowers mentioned in the Colonist’s notice of October 1906, along with another panel depicting clematis in flower. Each painting features a background scene of its floral habitat, as per the newspaper’s description, and the back of each panel has a title and details of framing and pricing. Later additions note each painting’s accession to the collection of the Taranaki Museum in 1925:
Panel 1, Flowers from the Antarctic Islands of NZ, 1. Ligusticum antipodium, 2. Ligusticum latifolium, 3. Aralia lyallii. Price ten guineas. E.C. Harris.
Printed label from the framer: J.P. Cooke, Oil and Color Merchant, Hardy Street, Nelson. Pictures framed in any Style, at reasonable rates. Royal Blue House. In another hand the same information plus ‘Daughter of Edwin Harris.’ On a label the plant names again plus ‘Presented by Mrs Weyergang, recorded Sept. 1925,’ and in pencil ‘also daughter of Edwin.’
NZ Clematis painted from nature by Miss Emily C. Harris, Nile Street East, Nelson, price ten guineas. Member of Suter Art Society’.
Printed label from the framer: J.P. Cooke, Oil and Color Merchant, Hardy Street, Nelson. Pictures framed in any Style, at reasonable rates. Royal Blue House. Museum label: ACC 052, Sept. 1925, pres. Mrs Weyergang.
The two big panels from 1906 were part of the bequest Mary Weyergang made to the Taranaki Museum after Emily’s death in August 1925. They were important enough to be added to the museum’s collection of Harris artworks and clearly part of the collection in the house at Nile St until 1925. The third painting from 1906, also an oil and larger than Emily’s watercolours, depicts white-flowering manuka and pohutukawa against a coastal background. It stayed in the family for much longer than the panels, passing from Mary Weyergang to her daughter Gretchen Briant, then to Gretchen’s son Phil and his wife Janet. Janet Briant gave the painting to her daughter Annabel Galpin who had it restored in 2006.
We may not be able to see the extent of Emily Harris’s contributions to the Christchurch International Exhibition of 1906-07, but the three large paintings of 1906 indicate the scale of her ambition in the early years of the twentieth century.