By Annabel Galpin
In 2006 my mother Janet Briant was downsizing and moving to a retirement village in Whanganui. Before moving she went through the process of dividing many of her possessions between my sisters and me. Among these were several unframed artworks including two of Emily’s oils on strawboard, much in need of conservation. My sister Judy Plimmer was given the Hector’s tree daisy (Brachyglottis hectorii) and as my parents had done, she left it stored in a cupboard. Judy was undecided about what to do with the artwork and in 2022 after much discussion she gave the painting to me.
I took it to an art conservator who described it as being “in a very fragile condition”. Approximately seven months later it was ready to be collected. I went to Auckland and was delighted by the transformation I saw in the conservator’s studio. The pink and grey background of the painting, now cleaned, was in fact pink and blue, showing off the small white flowers of Hector’s tree daisy to beautiful effect.
I then took the painting to a framer, requesting an acid-free mat along with non-reflective and conservation glass. After a month it was finally ready and the job complete! I was extremely pleased with the outcome and took the painting home to join my other Emily works, an oil and two watercolours. I couldn’t see a signature on the restored painting but Judy told me to look carefully at bottom right. I got a magnifying glass and there it was, very faint, in black paint: ‘E. C. Harris.’
And so there is another Emily Harris painting preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Postscript from Catherine and Michele
We followed the restoration of Annabel’s painting with great interest. Not many of Emily’s oil paintings have come to light, though we know she painted often in that medium from 1881 onwards after her return from the Melbourne International Exhibition 1880-81. We too were astonished by the restoration of Annabel’s oil. We had thought the plant was an Olearia but on sending a photo of the painting to Nelson botanist Shannel Courtney we received the following reply:
I think you can rule out O. arborescens and O. cheesemanii. It is possibly O. rani, but I’m going with Brachyglottis hectorii. The leaves are generally the right shape and the bases of some of them indicate the characteristic small pinnate leaflets. Also, the inflorescence is replete with leafy bracts which is most consistent with B. hectorii. This is a NWNelson – North Westland species of calcareous substrates. (24 Oct 2023)
From Shannel’s description we can see that Emily is depicting yet another species endemic to the Nelson and West Coast regions. A 21st-century conservator and a modern botanist have enlarged our perception of Emily’s project to paint species local to her own environment.
That the oil painting was important to Emily’s family we can deduce from its history. Annabel thinks it came to her parents from her grandmother Gretchen Briant, who was Emily’s niece. Gretchen was the daughter of Emily’s sister Mary Weyergang, nee Harris.
Emily Cumming Harris, Untitled (Brachyglottis hectorii in flower), undated, oil on straw board, 690 x 470mm. Framed, signature in black at bottom right, very faint: ‘E. C. Harris.’ Annabel Galpin collection, transferred from Judy Plimmer collection Apr 2022, restored Apr 2023.