Emily Harris at the Alexander Turnbull Library 1924-2006
The Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington holds a large collection of single sheet watercolours by Emily Cumming Harris, some 63 unframed works on paper that show the artist’s range and style. Looking into the history of the Turnbull holdings, we find that the library purchased 63 works from the artist herself in 1924, just one year before her death in Nelson at the age of 88. The story of this purchase plays out in an exchange of correspondence between Johannes C Anderson, the first Turnbull librarian, and his superiors at the Department of Internal Affairs. The correspondence is well worth examining for the light it throws on the library’s interactions with a potential depositor and some of the manoeuvres that were necessary to bring about the purchase of Emily’s paintings.
Anderson wrote to the Under Secretary of Internal Affairs (J Hislop) 12 June 1924:
Paintings by Miss Harris.
I have to report that last month I went over to Nelson for a week-end to see the paintings of Miss Harris, of which I spoke to you some time back. Some are quite good, and there is a series of Subantarctic flowers about which I have now written her, asking if she would be inclined to consider an offer. I will report again when I hear from her.
A follow-up letter of 4 July 1924 outlines Anderson’s assessment of the paintings and suggests an asking price for their purchase:
I have now to report that I have heard definitely from Miss Harris regarding the pictures I went to see. They are paintings, water and oils, of N. Zealand flowers done by her many years ago when she was a very good artist: she published three volumes, one of berries, one of flowers, one of ferns. I asked if she would accept 10/- each all round for the pictures. I hardly liked to make the offer, but as we can get them done at that figure here I did not feel I was justified in offering more. There is, however, this about it; her pictures – the ones I offered for at any rate – are of flowers from the Sub-antarctic Islands, and are artistic besides being faithful representations. I have consulted both artists and botanists, and both thought the pictures well worth 10/- each; – I was able to get an opinion as I had a dozen of the pictures sent as examples.
There are between fifty and sixty pictures altogether, and I should like to recommend that they be purchased at 11/6 each. I should very much like the Department to give more than the accepted offer as Miss Harris is over eighty years of age, and as I saw when I visited her she is in most necessitous circumstances. She sells a picture now and again, but has recently been compelled to accept the old age pension. As I told her, however, I could not recommend more than a business offer, and now submit the above recommendation for the consideration of yourself, and the Minister should you think it advisable.
Hislop wanted more information about the suggested purchase, writing to Anderson 18 July 1924:
The Controller and Auditor-General has recently raised the question in regard to the purchase of paintings etc., in order that there may be no duplicating by the Parliamentary Library, Dominion Museum and Alexander Turnbull Library.
In order that there may be no overlapping in the purchase of pictures, between the Library and the Dominion Museum, I shall be glad if you will advise me whether the Government has at any time previously purchased a set of flower paintings of the class Miss Harris has painted, and if so whether the purchase of those offered by Miss Harris to the Library would in any way be a duplication of such paintings. Please report fully.
Anderson defended his purchase offer 23 July 1924:
In reply to your memo, of 18th July, I have to say that the Museum did purchase a number of flower paintings by Mrs Hetley, and these are of the same class as those painted by Miss Harris.
There is this difference however, Miss Harris’s paintings are mostly of flowers from the Sub-antarctic islands, whilst Mrs Hetley’s were of the islands of New Zealand; and it was largely on account of the inclusion of these Sub-antarctic flowers that I recommended their acquisition. There would therefore be practically no duplication, and it was knowing that similar pictures had been purchased, and were being purchased for the exhibition, that caused me to make the recommendation to purchase the set now in question. I have twelve of them here, and should be pleased to bring them over should you wish to see them.
There is no further mention of the higher asking price and the memo includes a recommendation by the Minister of Internal Affairs that Emily’s pictures be purchased for the library at 10/- each. By 22 August Anderson could report to Hislop the successful completion of the purchase:
I have now to report that I have received from Miss Harris sixty-three paintings of N.Zealand flowers, and enclose voucher herewith in her favour for £ 31 – 10 – 0. Seeing the collection here now, I am satisfied that the Department has received very good value.
I should like to say that Dr Bett, Trafalgar Square, Nelson, has been very obliging in helping Miss Harris, who is over eighty years old, to select and see to the despatch of the pictures.
Today Emily Harris’s paintings at Turnbull are arranged in four sequences, two of them large format, one medium format and one small format. The tally across these four groups is 63, but on closer inspection we find that this is not Anderson’s 63. Three large format paintings were originally owned by Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull and one was donated to the library in 1983 by historian Dick Scott. There is no further correspondence about the receipt of Emily’s paintings at the library in 1924, leaving us to guess that Anderson or his successors began the cataloguing of Emily’s pictures with the group called Volume 2 New Zealand Flowers in colour (large format), continuing with Volume 3 New Zealand Flowers in Colour (medium) and Volume 4 New Zealand Flowers in Colour (small). If there was a Volume 1 New Zealand Flowers in Colour we might assume that it consisted in part of the large format works collected by Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull already in the library’s possession. What matters is not the accuracy or otherwise of the library’s records but that it managed to acquire such a substantial representation of Emily’s botanical flower painting at a juncture when the collection could have been dispersed into private hands. We could quibble about the price Anderson paid for such a handsome collection and regret that he could offer prices appropriate to botanical illustration rather than works of art. But thanks to his initiative and the help offered by Emily’s friend and neighbour Dr Frank Bett, the paintings made over a long stretch of her career have been preserved and are publicly accessible. In this section of our website we reproduce 23 images from Turnbull’s collection with reference to their original locations on the library’s website.
In 1968 and again in 1980 the Alexander Turnbull Endowment Trust issued an edition of Emily Harris prints drawn from the library’s collection of single sheet watercolours. We reproduce the eight Turnbull prints below, with acknowledgements to the library.
Over the years Turnbull has acquired other works by Emily Harris. New Zealand Plants 1891-1892 is a sketchbook containing eight drawings that was acquired from collector Michael Beca in 1999. New Zealand Flowers 1900 is an album of 21 watercolours and an illustrated title page acquired at auction in 2006 and previously owned by Nelson Girls College. Turnbull also holds multiple sets of New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns, including three full sets bound into single volumes and several partial sets. Of the three bound volumes, two were part of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull’s personal library. One set is uncoloured and the other handcoloured and signed by Emily. The coloured set is the one referred to in Emily’s letter and invoice to Turnbull of 1 Nov 1899. The Turnbull Library has also digitised five black and white illustrations by Emily for New Zealand Fairyland: A Story of the Caves (1909), a book for children written by Emily’s friend and neighbour Mrs Ambrose Eyles (Sarah Rebecca) Moore.
We reproduce below the original watercolours behind the Alexander Turnbull prints, a collation from the New Zealand Flowers in Colour volumes, the sketch collection of New Zealand Plants and illustrations from Fairyland in New Zealand: A Story of the Caves.