A Glistening Web: Whakatū / Nelson 11-12 October 2023

By Catherine Field-Dodgson and Michele Leggott  

In mid-October, Michele and Catherine travelled to Whakatū / Nelson for a quick research trip, and to deliver the Nelson Historical Society’s 2023 James Jenkins Memorial lecture. Michele was accompanied by her friend Susan Davis.

Mary Gavin, president of the Nelson Historical Society, and Yolanda Persico, the society’s secretary, met us at Nelson airport and kindly drove us to Wakapuaka Cemetery for our first research port of call. Merrin Hodgson (Hoddy), a Friends of the Wakapuaka Cemetery volunteer, joined us at the cemetery and showed us a number of recently-restored headstones. Hoddy pointed out a number of familiar names in the cemetery, including the Gullys, Bishop Suter, the Moores and the Sadds. We placed some kawakawa leaves and yellow aquilegia flowers on the Harris family grave, and took in the sunshine and birdsong.

Catherine placing kawakawa leaves on the Harris family grave
Catherine placing leaves and flowers on the Harris family grave. Photo taken by Mary Gavin.
The recently-cleaned Harris family headstone at Wakapuaka Cemetery
Harris family headstone at Wakapuaka Cemetery

Hoddy also showed us the headstone of Charles William Manby, Professor of Music and a close friend of Edwin Harris. Edwin sketched Manby’s stone after his death in 1866. Hoddy told us he had found the stone face down. He has cleaned it and set it upright again.

Charles William Manby's headstone
Charles William Manby’s headstone in Wakapuaka Cemetery

Our next visit was to the Suter Gallery, where we met director Julie Catchpole and curator and collection manager Kyla McKenzie. Julie and Kyla brought out the beautiful 1920 hand-made gift book in their collection for us to look at. It contains the last-known artwork by Emily, and is full of watercolour sketches and art nouveau floral details.

The Suter Gift Book open with a page of signatures and a floral motif on the left, and a watercolour landscape sketch on the right, with mountains and a body of water
Two pages from the Suter Gift Book, collection of the Suter Gallery
Emily's painting of manuka and lycopodium in the Suter Gift Book
Emily’s painting of manuka and lycopodium in the Suter Gift Book

Jude Rainey and her mother-in-law Molly then met us at the Suter Gallery. They brought with them an Emily Harris painting that has been in their family for several generations, and this was our first time viewing it. Dated 1899, the watercolour painting is in good condition and was much larger than we expected. We left our copies of Emily’s books with Julie and Kyla, as well as the Rainey family painting, to be arranged in display cabinets in the foyer ahead of the lecture.

Jude and Catherine standing next to the Rainey family painting, which is on an easel.
Jude and Catherine standing next to the Rainey family painting. It depicts Rhabdothamnus solandri in flower, with ferns and two butterflies.
Julie, Michele and Catherine standing behind a display case that contains Emily's books at the Suter Gallery
Julie Catchpole, Michele and Catherine with the display of books

On Wednesday evening we joined Nelson Historical Society members for a delicious potluck dinner at the local croquet club. We’re very thankful to the society members for sharing so much of their local knowledge with us throughout the evening – we have collected a number of new research threads to follow up on.

Michele Leggott and Susan Davis discussing Emily's Fairyland illustrations
Michele Leggott and Susan Davis discussing Emily’s Fairyland in New Zealand illustrations. Photo taken by Karen Stade

On Thursday morning Michele, Catherine, Susan and Mary Gavin visited Nelson Provincial Museum’s Isel Park Research Facility, at Stoke. We met collections leader Shea Trewin, senior curator of photography Darryl Gallagher and curator of archives Karen Gorsuch. Darryl and Karen brought out the Emily and Edwin Harris materials we had requested. We leafed through hand-coloured plates from Emily’s three 1890 books New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns, then had a close-up look at a number of paintings by Emily and Edwin. This was a very productive visit and we will share our discoveries about Emily’s use of colour in her books at a later date.

Mary Gavin, Michele Leggott and Susan Davis talking about a painting in the Isel Park Rsearch Centre
Mary Gavin, Michele Leggott and Susan Davis in the Isel Park Research Facility
Susan Davis, Michele Leggott and Mary Gavin sitting under a cherry blossom tree in flower, in the grounds of the Isel Park Research Facility
Susan, Michele and Mary sitting in the grounds of Isel Park

On Thursday evening Michele and Catherine delivered the 2023 James Jenkins Memorial lecture at the Suter Gallery theatre. Titled ‘A Glistening Web: the art and writing of Emily Cumming Harris’, our presentation included over 70 slides of paintings, poems and photographs. We explored Emily’s early life in Taranaki, Tasmania and Nelson, and then delved into her exhibiting practices, connections with scientific gentlemen and paintings of sub-antarctic flora. The second half of the lecture focused on Emily’s 1890 hand coloured editions of her three books and her contributions to the 1906 International Exhibition in Christchurch. We finished by noting that we are always happy to hear from anyone who might be able to tell us more about Emily’s long career, just now making its way into the light again. The web glistens, the work goes on.

Image showing the opening slide of the lecture, with text that reads "A Glistening Web: the art and writing of Emily Cumming Harris /Michele Leggott and Catherine Field-Dodgson / The James Jenkins Memorial Lecture 2023"

Photo of Emily, and two of her paintings: mahoe and rātā
Photo of Emily from collection of Puke Ariki, and two of her paintings: mahoe and rātā from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library
Three versions of Emily's hand coloured Astelia plates from NZ Berries. One of the plates has yellow berries, one has peach and amber colours and the third has yellow and orange berries.
Colour comparisons of Astelia plate in New Zealand Berries: Michele Leggott edition, New York Public Library edition, Puke Ariki edition
Photo of Michele speaking and Catherine smiling
The last slide of the lecture. Photo taken by Cathie Bell

We would particularly like to thank Mary Gavin for helping to make our visit so successful, and especially for sharing her local knowledge and connections. Thanks to Belinda Fletcher, current owner of 34 Nile St and champion of efforts to promote wider knowledge of Emily’s six decades in Nelson. Thanks also to Susan Davis and Cathie Bell for their support, and to Cathie for bringing delicious strawberries over from Blenheim. All the other photos in the post were taken by Catherine.

After the lecture the Historical Society presented each of us with a fern bowl by Brightwater potter Royce McGlashen, glazed deep blue on the inside with a koru attached to its outer rim. We think Emily would have approved heartily of the gift.

Ceramic bowl, glazed blue on the inside, with a koru handle
Koru bowl by Royce McGlashen


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