By Catherine Field-Dodgson
Many of Emily Cumming Harris’s artworks have disappeared over the past hundred years, but some paintings that we would love to see reappear are her studies of yellow rātā. Thanks to her diary and several newspaper articles, we know that Emily painted more than one version of the climbing yellow rātā vine in flower. However, while the paintings themselves are missing, these documents help illuminate and weave threads to other well-known figures in the colonial period.
There are 12 endemic species of Metrosideros in Aotearoa, comprising both rātā and pōhutukawa trees. Metrosideros fulgens / akatawhiwhi is a climbing rātā species, celebrated for its vibrant red flowers that bloom from the end of summer, well into winter. The vine wraps itself around a host tree, and its flowers offer a burst of colour in the bush when many other plants have stopped flowering. In mātauranga Māori, rātā vines were used for ‘lashings and bindings’, and the sap was used on open wounds to stop the flow of blood. While the red-flowering variety of Metrosideros fulgens / akatawhiwhi is well-known, there is also a beautiful yellow-flowering variety. Although it can now be readily purchased from garden nurseries, the yellow variety was rare in the late colonial period. The plants caused a great deal of excitement when people came across them in the bush, and specimens were collected, written about in newspapers and posted to plant collectors and artists throughout the country.
One such plant enthusiast in the South Island / Te Waipounamu was James Dall (1840-1912). Born in England, Dall moved to Nelson / Whakatū, New Zealand, where he established a plant nursery in Collingwood. He supplied Wellington Botanic Garden with plants in the 1870s, and he won two bronze medals for his display of tree ferns and smaller ferns in Wardian cases at the 1880-81 Melbourne International Exhibition. In 1890 Dall found a yellow-flowering rātā in the bush near Collingwood and sent a branch of it to Emily Harris. She recorded the gift in her diary:
We are now having our second Art Exhibition in the Shelbourne St Schoolroom. It is better than last year. Our new pictures are better painted and we have so many very rare plants. Mr James Dall of Collingwood sent me a magnificent seed panicle of a mountain cabbage tree, he also sent me a sprig of lovely yellow rata which he had just discovered. (Emily Harris, 17 Aug 1890)
Emily’s exhibitions were reviewed in local newspapers, with special mention made of her yellow rātā painting:
We can only make brief mention of the many other beautiful flowers and foliage that Miss Harris has so skilfully painted. Among them are the Bush Ake Ake, the Tawhai, a forest tree, Alpine flowers, the Astelia Solandri, a lovely yellow drooping flower with very graceful foliage, all from Mount Egmont. There is also a very rare flower, namely, a yellow Rata, recently discovered at Collingwood by Mr Dall. (Nelson Evening Mail 12 Aug 1890: 2)
Several table tops, on which floral subjects are painted, attract the notice of visitors, as also do a number of panels. The paintings of scarlet and yellow rata are very effective, and some groups of flowers admirably arranged and faithfully represented are certain not to be overlooked. (Colonist 15 Aug 1890: 3)
In October 1890, Emily arranged an exhibition of Harris family artworks to be shown in Wellington at the Messrs Baker Bros auction rooms in Lambton Quay. A letter to sisters Frances and Ellen copied into her diary noted that some of the family’s rātā paintings had sold to Premier Sir Harry Atkinson and his son Alfred, including one of her own:
The room looked better than the Shelbourne St School room. Papa’s picture shows out well & the others look well also, but still only a few people came, they seem taken up with other things. I have scarcely sold anything to speak of for this place. My two Lincrusta panels & one of your yellow rata ones to Sir H. Atkinson & my red & yellow rata to Alfred Atkinson. (Emily Harris, 15 Oct 1890).
A yellow rātā painting of Emily’s was mentioned again in newspapers in 1906 and 1912:
It is impossible with the space at command to go into details of the large and varied collection but to give an idea of what is to be seen it may be stated that among the pictures on view are specimens of the yellow kowhai, native flax, Mt. Cook lilies, kiekie plant and flowers, the supplejack berries, orchids, various species of gentian, whau (a very rare plant in the South Island, the wood of which is used by the Maories for fishing floats), cabbage trees, the white neinei (from Mokau, North Island), manuka flowers, rowharawhara plants (various varieties), the yellow rata creeper (a very rare plant the specimen Miss Harris used having been obtained in Collingwood), and a host of others. (Nelson Evening Mail 31 Jan 1906: 2)
Regarding yellow rata, a paragraph about which appeared recently in these columns, Miss Harris has in her studio in Nile-street a painting of yellow rata, sent to her by Mr James Dall, of Collingwood, in 1890, to paint. The flower was found in the bush near Collingwood. Miss Harris will be pleased to show the painting, which is very fine, to all who care to see it. (Nelson Evening Mail 27 Mar 1912: 4)
A glistening web of colonial connections exists between plant collectors, botanists and artists in early 1900s New Zealand. Although we don’t have a surviving yellow rāta painting of Emily’s, we can look to the Gisborne-based botanical / flower painter Sarah Featon for an idea of what it might have looked like. In 1890, James Dall also sent a specimen of the yellow rāta he had found to Featon, which she rendered in watercolour. Featon’s painting is in the Turnbull Library collection.
She titled her work ‘”Metrosideros aurata (sp nov Colenso) from Colinwood [sic] collected by Mr Dall. Transactions V.23 p.387.’ Featon passed her flower specimen onto the missionary and naturalist William Colenso, who noted: ‘This peculiar and elegant flowering species of Metrosideros I lately received (with other botanical specimens) from Mrs. S. Featon, of Gisborne, who had then recently obtained it from Collingwood.’
If we pull the threads tighter, we’re brought back neatly to Colenso’s daughter and granddaughter: Frances Mary Simcox and Milicent Mary Whitehorn. Frances Simcox owned a set of Emily’s 1890 books New Zealand Flowers, Berries and Ferns. Later the three volumes passed to her daughter Milicent, and eventually turned up for sale on the TradeMe auction website in 2020.
In 1910, Taranaki-based artist Fanny Good also painted a yellow rātā. We don’t know who supplied her with a specimen, but her painting is now in the collection of Puke Ariki.
Hopefully one day Emily’s yellow rātā paintings will resurface and we can admire her ‘faithful studies’ anew. Until then, we keep researching the many threads that connect back to Emily Cumming Harris and her botanical / flower paintings.