Edwin and Emily Harris at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand Annual Conference in Nelson

By Michele Leggott and Catherine Field-Dodgson, with research support from Wayne Orchiston and Ian Cooper

First there were Emily’s three small oil paintings of celestial events, each with a connection to Dr Frank Bett, her friend and neighbour in Nile St from around 1910. Bett owned the three paintings and after his death in 1957 they came to the Nelson Provincial Museum along with other paintings and sketches by Emily and Edwin Harris.

We became curious about Emily’s paintings of the total solar eclipse of September 1885, her westward view of the double-tailed comet Viscara in 1901 and the northwestern apparition, undated, of another comet described by the museum as ‘Comet over Dr Bett’s House, Nile Street, Nelson.’ Could this third oil be a depiction of Halley’s Comet in 1910?

Emily Cumming Harris, Total eclipse of the Sun from the Port Road, Sept. 1885, oil on board, 258 x 196 mm. Nelson Provincial Museum, AC472
Emily Cumming Harris, Comet, (1901), oil on board, 339 x 436 mm. Nelson Provincial Museum, AC807.

Emily Cumming Harris, [Comet over Dr Bett’s House, Nile Street, Nelson], undated, unmounted oil on board, 355 x 205 mm. Nelson Provincial Museum, AC291.
We knew already that painting and sketching celestial phenomena was a family affair with the Harrises. Emily’s diary entry of 9 September 1885 describes in detail how she and her sisters and their father watched and recorded the first total solar eclipse visible in Aotearoa since European settlement:

We all got up about half past five a.m., made a little water boil while we were dressing, had a little refreshment, & then set off, Father for the Church Hill, & we three for the Port Hills, to see the eclipse of the sun. The morning was perfectly calm, still & light, not a cloud. We got a splendid view of sea & sky, the sun rising above the hills, the lovely effect of deep shadow & yellow light as the eclipse went on until when totality was reached it became almost dark & very cold, the stars began to appear, then suddenly the most brilliant rays of white, rosy & rainbow shot out from beneath the dark edge, again the sun began to emerge from the black shadow & gradually the light of day & the blue sky returned to us. It was a sight never to be forgotten. I tried to make a sketch but was not very successful.

Edwin’s rendering of the eclipse survives in a sketchbook where he shows 4 of its phases in pencil and then the moment of totality twice, in watercolour. He paints a black circle that is edged in a dark pink with a grey wash in behind for sky, colours that echo Emily’s oil painting of the event. A few pages earlier in the same sketchbook Edwin has drawn the Great Comet of 1882 as it appeared over Nelson.

Edwin Harris, [Street scene with a comet in the sky], 10 October 1882, pencil drawing, [p. 36] of sketchbook. Cranstone collection, Whanganui.
Edwin Harris, [Sketches of eclipse], undated, pencil and watercolour drawing, [p. 44] of sketchbook. Cranstone collection, Whanganui.
We were excited to find a newspaper article from May 1910, as Halley’s Comet was appearing in skies the world over, in which Emily discloses more about the family paintings of eclipses and comets. She has called the newspaper for a special showing:

Miss Harris, Nile Street, has shown me three interesting paintings relating to past Comets and the eclipse of the Sun, and they will be exhibited in Jackson and Co.’s window, Trafalgar Street, on Monday, when there will be a total eclipse of the sun, invisible in New Zealand. The first of the pictures represents the brilliant comet seen in 1882, painted by the late Mr. Edwin Harris; the second represents the double-tailed comet, seen in April, 1901, painted at Wakapuaka by Miss Harris; and a picture of the total eclipse of the sun in September, 1885, painted by the late Mr Harris, is the third of the series. (‘Local & General,’ Nelson Evening Mail 7 May 1910: 4)

Edwin’s sketch of the 1882 comet is the origin of the large oil Emily shows in 1910. The painting was auctioned in Wellington in 1996 and is presumably still in private hands. Edwin was long dead by 1910 but it seemed entirely possible that Emily would seize the chance to document Halley, which was putting on one of its most spectacular displays as it approached the sun on its 75-year transit of the inner solar system. Who could tell us whether or not Emily’s undated painting depicts the most celebrated Great Comet of modern times?

Enter the astronomers. Ian Cooper of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand Historical Section (RASNZ) had picked up Edwin’s sketches on our website and shown them to colleague Wayne Orchiston. Accurate interpretations of celestial phenomena by artists in nineteenth-century New Zealand are few and far between, so the two astronomers were already primed when our enquiry about the Harris paintings arrived. We told them what we knew about the five located works and they got down to the business of ascertaining how much artistic licence Edwin and Emily might have been deploying in their representation of eclipses and comets. Short answer: very little. All five works are recognisable depictions of the events they portray and can be tagged to particular times and locations.

1882, 1885 and 1901 were relatively simple to confirm, with the bonus of Ian’s identification of stars in Emily’s painting of 1901 as part of the constellation of Orion visible in the night sky above Nelson in early May of that year. The painting of the comet viewed from Nile St took a little longer but can be confirmed as a view of Halley’s comet over Nelson just past perihelion in the later part of May 1910. Hanging in the night sky with the enormous tail of the comet are stars from the constellation of Leo, the brightest of them probably hidden behind an area of pearl-grey cloud also painted by Emily. We think she sketched the comet from an upstairs room of her home at 34 Nile St when it became visible in the early evening sky after 24 May 1910.

Diagram of the comet Viscara, showing its position relative to the constellation Orion on 5, 7 and 12 May 1901 – supplied by Ian Cooper
Diagram showing position of Halley’s Comet relative to the Hydra and Leo constellations on 29 May 1910 – supplied by Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper’s annotations on Emily Cumming Harris painting

By coincidence (or the alignment of certain stars), the Royal Astronomical Society’s annual conference opens in Nelson 24 May 2024. Thanks to Wayne and Ian and their colleague John Drummond, Edwin and Emily Harris’s celestial works will be there, represented in one of the conference posters prepared for the occasion.

Wayne Orchiston and the poster about Edwin and Emily’s celestial works at the 2024 RASNZ conference. Photo taken by Richard Easther.


2 thoughts on “Edwin and Emily Harris at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand Annual Conference in Nelson

  1. Another blog opening my surprised eyes to the depth within the Harris paintings. So grateful this research is provided in such a way that we ordinary folk can understand and enhance our appreciation of art.

    1. Thanks Sandy – and they’re such beautiful artworks too. We’re very grateful to Wayne and Ian for sharing their expertise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *