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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.