The project

Later she became a well-known botanical artist and the writer of lively diaries that showed how difficult it was to make a living teaching and painting in the 1880s and 90s. But Emily Cumming Harris (1837-1925) was a writer all her life, and it is the young woman of 1860, already a confident, archiving poet, whose trajectory we document in this project. Like her contemporary Emily Dickinson, Emily Harris copied her poems into letters and sent them to friends and family members. Unlike Dickinson, whose almost 1800 poems were discovered bound in small handmade manuscript books after her death, Emily Harris’s poems have largely disappeared. But not quite. At Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth are two handmade booklets (fascicles), and in them are poems about what it was like to live under military occupation in the town in 1860. Harris knew she was singular (‘I believe I was at that time the only girl in all Taranaki whoever wrote a line’). And she inscribes herself at the heart of language (‘I am like the active verb to be and to do, I am too necessary an appendage to be left out’). What, then, can we make of a woman writing lines behind the lines of colonial settlement on contested ground? And how might we understand an almost forgotten voice issuing from the outermost edges of written memory?

We are reconstructing the traces of Emily Harris’s life and art, circling back to the letters her mother and father wrote to England, considering the letters Emily herself wrote from New Plymouth and Hobart to her family in Nelson, scouting the diaries of 1885-91, and looking for the contrails of two books that seem to chase each other across the wide horizons of 19th and 20th century archival impulses. We have also tracked Harris’s developing botanical knowledge, begun listing her drawings and paintings in public collections here and overseas, and we have assembled her occluded exhibition history from available sources. These and other surveys of dispersed Harris archives have been made with the help of research staff at Puke Ariki, The Alexander Turnbull Library, Archives New Zealand, The Suter Art Gallery, Nelson Provincial Museum, and most importantly with the assistance of Harris descendants in Whanganui and elsewhere who still hold a substantial collection of family papers and artworks. We plan to record the stages of the research journey by uploading source material, commentary and a selection of creative projects inspired by Emily Harris and her family of fellow artists, writers and musicians. These responses, archival, critical and creative, are steps towards a full reappraisal of Emily Harris projected for publication to mark the centenary of her death in 2025.

Underpinning our project are three main areas of enquiry. The first is an investigation of female economies of writing and dissemination. The second is a parallel investigation of the economies at work in the production of art by women in 19th and early 20th century settings. The third and most complex involves the figure of ruined colonial hope and its consequences across the same period. Emily Harris’s life and art, as yet only partly visible to those now searching for it, is the means by which we may achieve a richer understanding of the conditions of time and place that ultimately connect with our decolonising but forgetful present.

Find out about the research team here