Drawing Lines

Drawing Lines. Emily Harris Diaries 1885-1891

Edited by Michele Leggott, Brianna Vincent and Dasha Zapisetskaya from manuscripts in the Puke Ariki Heritage Collection, New Plymouth.


When Emily Harris began a diary in August 1885 she was resuming after a break of 27 years, noting that she wished she had kept her account of life in pre-war Taranaki when she was a girl. She is starting again in order to trace the fate of her latest art work, recently dispatched to the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition in Wellington. The diary continues intermittently until November 1886, recording life and art in Nelson with sisters Frances and Ellen Harris, who were also working artists and teachers alongside Emily in the private school run by the Harrises. Edwin Harris, artist, drawing master and one-time surveyor, is a much fainter figure in the diary, living with his three unmarried daughters in the family home at 34 Nile St. After a gap of more than a year and a half the diary begins again in August 1888 as Emily receives a quote from London for publishing a selection of drawings of New Zealand flowers, berries and ferns. The project occupies her until October 1890 when her three books of lithograph drawings are published in Nelson by bookseller HD Jackson. Against a background of overwork and falling income, Emily organises four family exhibitions in Nelson, New Plymouth and Wellington 1889-90. In the same period she visits the lower slopes of Mount Taranaki and begins a fascination with alpine flowers that will result in the superb watercolour drawings of her unpublished book ‘New Zealand Mountain Flora.’ The diary finishes with accounts of the Wellington exhibition of October 1890 and the sisters’ plans for sending Frances and Ellen to New Plymouth for an extended stay near married sisters Mary Weyergang, Catherine Moore and their families in early 1891. Emily’s diary entries and transcriptions of letters to and from her sisters provide a vivid record of the family’s hopes and fears during the later years of what came to be known as the long depression in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The manuscript

The diaries presented here are part of the Emily Harris collection at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth (ARC2002-190). They consist of two hardback notebooks donated by Emily Harris’s nieces Miss Ruth Moore and Mrs Ella Grace Hobbs to the then Taranaki Museum in 1961. Each notebook has a small sticker on the front cover with an alphabet letter written in green ink. The earlier notebook (August 1885-November 1886) is labelled ‘T.’ The second (August 1888-February 1891) is labelled ‘V.’ There was no notebook labelled ‘U’ at the time of the Taranaki Museum’s registration of the accession; nor was there an item labelled ‘W,’ though almost all other letters can be found on various items in the Moore Hobbs donation. The alphabet appears to be a device for keeping track of documents belonging to the Moore family of New Plymouth,. The Moores were direct descendants of Edwin and Sarah Harris through their daughter Catherine who married Alfred William Moore in 1863. When Emily Harris died in 1925, family papers and art works were divided between the Moores and Emily’s surviving sister Mary Weyergang. Eldest daughter Constance Moore seems to have taken charge of the family archive and probably made the alphabetic arrangement of the materials in her possession. After the death of Constance in 1942, custody of the archive passed to Ruth and Grace, who were in their eighties when it was donated to the museum.

There are two earlier transcripts of Emily Harris’s diaries. The first was made in 1964 by Emily’s great niece Margaret Jeffery (née Weyergang) and copies of the typescript are held at Puke Ariki and the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. A corrected transcript was made in 1979 by University of Waikato researcher Jeanine Graham, who also deposited copies of her typescript with Puke Ariki and Turnbull. We wish to acknowledge the prior work of both transcribers, each of whom had access to the original notebooks. We have consulted both typescripts as well as the source text in preparing our edition of the diaries.

A note on the text

Spelling and punctuation have been silently corrected. Square brackets indicate addition of missing words or other editorial interventions which usually specify the day or date of a diary entry. Where Emily Harris has added a superscript or footnote comment on her main text, we have inserted the material in the place she intended it to occur. The division of the diary into 12 dated sections is part of our attempt to give readers a sense of the overall shape of Emily’s narrative. Contextual notes accompany each section and we provide an index of names and a brief bibliography.

Permissions and acknowledgements

We wish to thank Puke Ariki for permission to publish the diaries of Emily Cumming Harris on this website and for the reproduction of selected images from source text in two notebooks in the Emily Harris collection, ARC2002-190. We gratefully acknowledge the continuing support of research staff at Puke Ariki and the Nelson Provincial Museum in helping to track down Taranaki and Nelson references. Early work on the diaries was done by Fredrika Van Elburg and Makyla Curtis, both valued members of the research team. A University of Auckland Summer Research Scholarship enabled Dasha Zapisetskaya to work on the transcript and notes December 2019-February 2020. Thanks to Kathryn Mercer (New Plymouth), Anne McFadgen (Nelson) and Catherine Field-Dodgson (Wellington) for their generous contributions to the project. Thanks also to my co-editors Brianna Vincent and Dasha Zapisetskaya, without whose able research support this edition of the diaries would not have been possible. Finally, we wish to acknowledge the ongoing support of Harris descendants Roseanne Cranstone, Annabel Galpin, Godfrey JW Briant, Brenda Briant, Sue Needham and their families.

Michele Leggott
March 2021


Section 1: August 1885 (5500 words)
Emily reviews events leading up to her submission of six works for the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition in Wellington which opened 1 Aug 1885. She is starting a diary many years after one kept in Taranaki before the war of 1860 that she destroyed and now wishes she had kept. She wants to record the present history of her work and its reception by audiences at home in Nelson and further afield. The Harris sisters tell artist and neighbour Colonel Benjamin Branfill that their mother wrote a family history. Emily pastes a newspaper account of the exhibition opening and reviews of the art section into her diary but hears little about her own entries. She reflects on the response of the Reverend Dr James Taylor to poems she has sent him.

Section 2: September-November 1885 (1300 words)
Preliminaries for submitting work to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition to be held in London occupy Emily. She and other Nelson artists including Mrs Hardcastle, Bessie Jones and her sister meet exhibition commissioner Dr Julius von Hasst. Emily, her sisters and father observe a solar eclipse and Emily receives notice of a first and third prize in the Wellington exhibition. She falls ill and cannot send work to the New Zealand Society of Arts exhibition in Auckland or travel to Wellington to see the Industrial Exhibition.

Section 3: January-March 1886 (2300 words)
Emily begins her 1886 diary by reviewing events of the previous two months. Convalescence and a trip to Upper Moutere with Miss Smith in November were followed by preparation for the Nelson Olde Englyshe Fayre and rehearsals of her schoolchildren for a Maypole dance. Emily dispatches work to London for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, some of it from her Wellington submission. She records summer outings to Mackay’s Bluff, Todd’s Bush and the Dunne Mountain tramway, and sketches in some of these locations.

Section 4: March-July 1886 (4000 words)
Emily celebrates her 49th birthday. She continues to balance painting and sketching with teaching but is demoralised by lack of income and time to focus on her work. News of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition is slow in coming, and the Tarawera eruption in June seems to be part of a pattern of local and national disasters. In July, Emily begins lessons in wood engraving from Mrs Charlotte Hardcastle. She saves family letters from England that her father planned to burn.

Section 5: August-November 1886 (4100 words)
Emily reflects on a year of diary writing. Ellen becomes an invalid and requires nursing for several months. She is tubercular and will not be able to resume teaching in the Harris sisters’ school though she can take private pupils at home. Emily receives a painting from New South Wales artist John W Stone and a decorated plaque from his wife Louise. Some notice of Emily’s work in the London exhibition but no official recognition. Excursion to gather clematis and with a larger party to Dunne Mountain. Emily is concerned by physical symptoms that she does not recognise as menopausal. News of the death of John Sinclair Wilson stirs Emily’s memory of his uncle James Upfill Wilson. James’ sister Elizabeth Birch Brown has called on Emily during a visit to Nelson. Emily continues wood engraving lessons but Mrs Hardcastle is leaving Nelson at the end of the year. Cousin Mary Mountjoy Paddon has written from London with a positive response to Emily’s work in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, and she has been sent the exhibition catalogue. Ellen is given a clean bill of health by Dr Boor but must take care of herself and leave nelson in January for a change of air.

[No diary for 1887 or the first half of 1888. Known events include a visit to New Plymouth by Emily (early 1887) and a production of tableaux vivants for church funds (early August 1888?). Aunt Ann Mountjoy Paddon dies in London and 26 years of letters from New Zealand are destroyed when the house is cleared by her daughter Mary. Aunt Elizabeth Dyer Cole also dies in 1887, probably in London. The only known works by Emily in this period are two large watercolours:

  • Emily Cumming Harris. Rangiora. Brachyglottis rangiora. 1887. Watercolour, 730 x 520mm. Turnbull. C-024-007. (A branch of the New Zealand shrub Rangiora (brachyglottis repanda) in flower, showing the leaves with their white backs, against a grey-green background. Reproduced as a Turnbull Library Print, 1968.)
  • Emily Cumming Harris. Cordyline Banksii. 1887. Watercolour, 695 x 491mm. Turnbull. C-024-009. (The broad-leafed forest cabbage tree in flower, shown in close-up detail. Reproduced as a Turnbull Library Print, 1968. Other Titles – Ti Ngahere, forest cabbage tree Recto – beneath image: the botanical name in ink, underlined.)

Three works by Edwin Harris are dated 1887:

  • Edwin Harris. Site of Campbell’s mill, March 18th 1887. One of two unmounted watercolour paintings on one sheet, (double-sided). Pencil grid drawn over page. View of a site of a mill. Nelson Provincial Museum. AC841.
  • Edwin Harris. [Tree lined street scene]. One of two unmounted watercolour painting on one sheet, (double-sided). Pencil grid drawn over page. Depicts a tree lined lane. Nelson Provincial Museum. AC842.
  • Edwin Harris. Nelson Jubilee Celebration. 04 Jun 1887. Watercolour.  View of Trafalgar Street with crowds, and flags. Nelson Provincial Museum. AC817.]

Section 6: August-December 1888 (1800 words)
Emily receives a quote from John Walker and Company of London for publication of her drawings of New Zealand flora. She works on finalising drawings for three books (flowers, berries and ferns). Sample drawings from each book are displayed in Nelson bookseller HD Jackson’s window to encourage subscriptions that will meet the cost of publication. Artist and friend John Gully dies after a long illness. Emily quotes letters from her sister Mary Weyergang in New Plymouth concerning surveyor general Percy Stephenson Smith and artist Ellis Rowan. Brother-in-law August Weyergang must give up his failing business.

Section 7: January 1889 (4000 words)
Emily reviews events of December, focusing on a successful end of year play put on by pupils of the Harris sisters’ school. After Christmas, she and Frances go on a week-long camping party with neighbours and friends to a river on leased Māori land beyond Happy Valley. There are sketching and ferning expeditions, river bathing and walks to Cable Bay, the Māori church and Bishop’s Peninsula. Bishop Suter and his wife visit the camp. There are concerts and singing each night and more people drive out from Nelson to visit.

Section 8: February-July 1889 (3600 words)
The school is not making enough money and household expenses press. Emily has won no prizes at the Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne, which she believes has damaged her ability to attract pupils for the school. She works on the drawings for her three books and plans to present them with poems. Specimen proofs arrive from London and are approved. An exhibition in the Shelbourne Street schoolroom is spoiled by Branfill’s unflattering portrait of John Gully. Memories of Mrs Humphries and Fanny Stapp (née Webster) from early days in Taranaki. Percy Smith visits the Harrises. Mrs Deborah Corrigan poaches pupils for her dancing class and the Harris sisters prepare to organise an evening of tableaux as a church fund-raiser. Emily has not found enough subscriptions to meet the cost of publishing her books and HD Jackson agrees to underwrite publication. They will take an equal share in any profits. The finalised drawings are dispatched to London.

Section 9: September-October 1889 (4400 words)
Emily reviews the preparation and staging of tableaux vivants (living pictures) at the Theatre Royal in August. A sewing machine arrives from the tableaux participants as a gift of thanks to the Harris sisters. Emily asks Margaret Harrison to show her drawings to Lady Florence Onslow, wife of the Governor, who is visiting Nelson in October. The Harris sisters attend a performance of the opera Maritana by William Vincent Wallace. Emily goes to a garden party reception given by Lady Onslow at The Cliffs. She retrieves her drawings from Miss Harrison, writes to Lady Onslow and is invited to The Cliffs where she shows a selection of paintings, panels and drawings. She arranges for John Gully’s widow to send Lady Onslow a portfolio of unfinished work by Gully. Mr Moir of Dunedin buys drawings and paintings by Emily, the first she has sold for some time.

Section 10: November-December 1889 (3800 words)
Emily decides to hold a family exhibition to pay household bills. She negotiates with the Reverend Samuel Poole for the use of the Shelbourne Street schoolroom. Poole reminds her of a long ago visit to Motueka and Emily recalls her meeting there with James Upfill Wilson. The Harrises attend the Bishop’s garden party and Emily learns that Edwin, aged 83, will be asked to retire from his teaching position at the Bishop’s School. The exhibition is a financial success and Edwin is farewelled at an end of year school breakup. Emily has enough money to pay for a holiday in New Plymouth where she will re-stage the exhibition.

Section 11: January-February 1890 (5800 words)
Emily reconstructs an account of her holiday and two exhibitions in Taranaki using a mix of dated entries and letters to and from herself, Frances, Mary and Ellen. She arrives in New Plymouth at New Year to stay with the Weyergangs and there is a family party to Inglewood to visit friends John Newland, Oswald Curtis and their families. Emily and Mary make a side trip to visit Walter and Minnie Bewly at their farm beyond Inglewood. The sisters prepare and hang the New Plymouth exhibition but are disappointed by sales and attendance. Artists Georgina Hetley and Henry Josiah de Forest visit the exhibition and Emily talks to local artist and friend Francis Hamar Arden. She travels to Stratford and goes camping on the lower slopes of Mount Taranaki with a party of nine led by Charles Curtis. She stays with the Curtises in Stratford for a week afterwards, painting and sketching, and is persuaded to bring her exhibition south. Returning to Inglewood she stays with Oswald Curtis and his family, and when an out of control burn-off threatens the town she and Mary help to protect the Curtis property. The Stratford exhibition goes ahead and is a success. Frances and Ellen send news of the arrival of proof copies of Emily’s New Zealand Ferns. Emily leaves New Plymouth for Wellington, having met her nephew Harry Moore who is visiting from Australia and given him paintings by herself and Frances. In Wellington she stays with Robert and Fanny Lee and visits Percy Smith and Lady Atkinson.

Section 12: August 1890-February 1891 (3800 words)  
Emily reviews events of the past eight months and notes the delay in publication of her books. She then describes the second successful family exhibition in the Shelbourne Street schoolroom in August and notes preparation for selling Art Union tickets to increase income from the show. She is advised to take the exhibition to Wellington but the maritime strike of August-October 1890 delays plans. Bishop Suter gives three social evenings including a private exhibition to mark the first anniversary of the Bishopdale Sketching Club. Emily travels to Wellington in October and sets up the family exhibition in Baker Brothers auction rooms on Lambton Quay. Copies of her books arrive the day she leaves Nelson and HD Jackson gives her 21 sets to sell in Wellington. The Lees and other friends help set up and run the exhibition. It pays costs but does not make a profit. Emily lists buyers of paintings and books, visits Lady Atkinson, Mrs Judge Richmond, the Percy Smiths and botanist Thomas Kirk and his wife. The books are selling quickly in Melbourne but not elsewhere, though Jackson has received positive notices and sets have been posted to England for Christmas. Bishop Suter collapses after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. Ellen’s health deteriorates and Frances organises an extended stay in New Plymouth in a rented cottage for both of them. A newspaper clipping about the Wellington show ends the diary after a letter from Ellen to Emily describing the overnight sea voyage from Nelson to New Plymouth.

Full List

Section 1: August 1885
Section 2: September-November 1885
Section 3: January-March 1886
Section 4: March-July 1886
Section 5: August-November 1886
Section 6: August-December 1888
Section 7: January 1889
Section 8: February-August 1889
Section 9: September-October 1889
Section 10: November-December 1889
Section 11: January-February 1890
Section 12: August 1890-February 1891

The diaries source material

Harris, Emily Cumming. MS diary . Written in Nelson, NZ, 2 Aug 1885 – 20 Nov 1886. Puke Ariki. ARC2002-190. Box 2, folder 1. (T)

Harris, Emily Cumming. MS diary. Written in Nelson and Taranaki, NZ, 20 Aug 1888 – Nov 1890 plus copies of letters to 26 Feb 1891. Puke Ariki. ARC2002-190, Box 2, Folder 2. (V)

Bibliography to Drawing Lines

Index of Names