A Wonderful Panorama

A Wonderful Panorama: Frances Harris Illustrated Journal of Ascent of Mt Egmont 1879


A sketchbook belonging to Frances Emma Harris (1842-1892) survives in a family collection and presents a record of the artist’s rendition of scenes from her ascent of Mount Taranaki in March 1879. Interleaved with text describing the expedition and 10 pen and ink sketches are 9 pages of notes on Frances by her sister Emily, written in 1898. Together these items present an excellent account of the sisters’ interest in recording their engagement with the natural environment and what it was like to grow up colonial in 1840s Taranaki. Frances’ journalling of her three-day trip to the Pouakai Range and the mountain she called Egmont is the only extant piece of her writing that we have found. It supplies a valuable comparison with Emily’s writing: the sisters share a vivid style and both enjoy transmitting details of their experiences. It is perhaps not surprising to find Frances quoting Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos Eaters’ as she contemplates her surroundings:

In fact it seemed ‘A land of streams!’ ‘Some like a downward smoke, slow dropping veils of thinnest lawn did go; and some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke, rolling a slumberous sheet of foam below.’

Frances was one of three women in a party of six that set out 11 March 1879 for Stephen Coad’s farm on Mangorei Rd at the foot of the Pouakai Range, 11 miles distant from New Plymouth. Coad (1854-1944) guided the party to its camping place on the lower slopes of the mountain and then supported the efforts of the three men and three women to reach the summit 12 March. As the other two women flagged, they and their escorts fell back, leaving Frances, ‘Mr G’ and Coad to make a final attempt on the summit. From their vantage point 8261 feet above sea level, Frances and her companions had an extensive view of the Taranaki ring plain:

We had a wonderful panorama stretched out before us: from the White Cliffs to Stoney River and right away over the clouds to ‘The Other side of nowhere’ and then again inland over a sea of forest, with the blue smoke of Stratford hanging like a faint mist over the settlement.

Frances Harris, 37, was probably staying with her married sister Mary Weyergang on one of the periodic visits the Nelson-based sisters made to their hometown of New Plymouth. The journal indicates that Frances had made an earlier trip to the ranges a month before climbing the mountain and there are two watercolour paintings and two oils in the Harris collection at Puke Ariki testifying to her interest in depicting Taranaki landscape.

Untitled (Rock Archway, Paritutu) 1860, watercolour. Weyergang née Harris donor (1919) A66.471
Untitled (Mountain from Mangori Rd) 1891, oil. Hobbs donor 1961 (framed) A66.115
Untitled (Gairloch from Greenwood Rd) No date, oil. Hobbs donor 1961 (framed) A66.143
Untitled (Omata archway and open sea in background) No date, watercolour. Hobbs donor 1961. A66.710

The sketchbook has 15 leaves. It is a cardboard-bound book with a blue, heavily foxed paper covering and a blue leather spine. The binding is fragile but intact. On the final page a botanical specimen has been sewn into the journal with the word ‘Ceder’ beneath it. Blue sewing thread is visible on the blank verso.

We are grateful to Godfrey JW and Judith Briant for making Frances Harris’s sketchbook available for research and online publication.

Michele Leggott
March 2021

Frances Harris Illustrated Journal of Ascent of Mt Egmont 1879

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