Watercolours and Poems

Emily Harris New Zealand Mountain Flora 1894-1910


In 1970 the Alexander Turnbull Library acquired Emily Harris’s New Zealand Mountain Flora, an artist’s mock-up consisting of 30 bound signatures, each featuring a watercolour of alpine flora and a facing page of typewritten text. The paintings are exquisite, often with inset scenes representing alpine habitat, and among the botanical notes Emily supplied are eight unattributed poems, clearly her own work. We know that Emily Harris worked on her mountain flora project at the end of the 1890s and again in 1910, and that she hoped her wealthy English cousin Lord Stuart Rendel and his wife Ellen would help bring out the book in England. When war intervened in 1914 after the deaths of both Rendels, Emily lost sight of the book she had sent to her cousin  and she must have known that her mountain flora would remain unpublished. It seems likely that Turnbull’s acquisition, bought from the estate of collector Ken Webster, is the Rendel artifact, returning to Aotearoa New Zealand to be lodged in the library’s collection and now appearing online as part of our research website. As a high point in Emily Harris’s art and writing, New Zealand Mountain Flora deserves our attention and its history, though fragmentary, is worth investigating.

From her diary and comments in the preface to New Zealand Mountain Flora it is clear that Emily Harris began her alpine flora project after visiting Taranaki in January 1890 and camping on the lower slopes of Taranaki Mount Egmont. The only date on the artist’s book is 1894, appearing on what looks like an early cover design for the work. Pencillings on the same drawing (‘H + W,‘ and ‘£35’) may be traces of a quote for publishing costs at the time.

Emily worked on her mountain flora paintings through the 1890s and into the 1900s. Her plan for publication by subscription of a book of some 30 coloured plates was accompanied by exhibitions of the paintings in Nelson and New Plymouth in 1899. A Nelson reviewer commented enthusiastically on the paintings and the plan for publication:

At the invitation of Miss Harris, a representative of the ‘Evening Mail’ inspected that lady’s paintings of New Zealand flowers at her studio in Nile-street East. Miss Harris has undoubted talent in depicting to the life the exquisite hues of the innumerable wild flowers of New Zealand, more especially those that grow high on the mountains of the south, and in these her life-like fidelity amounts almost to genius. One needs but to inspect the group of lovely blue ‘Pleurophylla speciosa’ which grows in Adams’ Island, brilliantly coloured ‘Golden Lillies,’ and ‘Langustia’ to fully appreciate the wonderful gift of beauty bestowed on this country by Nature in her most lavish mood. Miss Harris is endeavouring to publish a book of paintings illustrating the mountain flowers of New Zealand. Botanists have written about the endless variety of these flowers ; but their works have lacked illustration, or if the flowers have been depicted, they have not been painted when in their natural state. Miss Harris paints direct from nature, brings out every important feature as only an artist can, and so adds a useful work to the botanical library of New Zealand.

But, apart from the scientific value of the work, it should be a most beautiful and interesting acquisition to drawing-room or study. The book will comprise some 36 pictures in water colours, and judging by those already accomplished, more especially the Mount Cook lilies and the frontispiece, (her work will be of great value, without considering the fact that it is the first of its sort to be published in the colony. Miss Harris requires 200 subscribers, and, for the purpose of enrolling members, the work, so far as it is completed, will be on view in Mr Ambrose Moore’s office for the next few days. Miss Harris is to hold an exhibition in New Plymouth, where her beautiful paintings are bound to attract much attention and admiration. To give an adequate idea of the comprehensiveness of the artist’s labours would take up too much space, and a personal inspection is really necessary to appreciate them. There are numerous studies of the clematis under different conditions, rangiora, cabbage-tree blossoms, snow berries, gentians, sprays of geum. orchids of various kinds, manuka — a clever piece of work— kowharawhara, edelweiss, whau, cordyline berries and flowers-, all in endless profusion, on the walls, on easels, and on the door, with a variety of which the eye never wearies. One picture — on a plaque —  represents a spray of rata, which it is hard to believe at first sight is not real, so perfect is its perspective, so minute its fidelity to nature — line for line, and colour for colour. Miss Harris should seek a larger field than New Zealand for the disposal of her life-work — no less a field, in fact, than the British Museum. (Nelson Evening Mail 9 Mar 1899: 2)

In New Plymouth collector WH Skinner visited the exhibition, noting in his diary: ‘Attended an exhibition of N.Z. wild flowers paintings by Miss Harris of Nelson.  Put my name down as a subscriber to her work on N.Z. Mountain Flora to be published at £1.1.0.’ (22 Apr 1899) Three years later, visiting Emily in Nile St, Nelson, Skinner updated his observations: ‘Called again at Miss Harris’ and found her home, stayed a considerable time going over her studio. I’m afraid she will never have the means to publish her work on the Mountain flora of N.Z., poor soul. She must be very poor but she puts on a brave appearance.’ (7 Feb 1902) Is this the moment when Emily Harris sent a mock-up of her book to Stuart and Ellen Rendel in London? A letter in Ellen’s almost illegible hand indicates that artwork of some kind went to London: ‘If you have not sent the drawings do you think it is quite [safe?] unless they can be sent by hand. I shall be so sorry [?] and disappointed you were I not able to sell them then of course delighted to possess [?] one at the 10 guineas you mention. [?].’ (9 Aug 1902)

In 1910 Emily revived the mountain flora project, writing to George Fowlds, Minister of Education and MP for Grey Lynn, who had ordered copies of New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns:

I am preparing another book the same size as those I sent you but much better, ‘New Zealand Mountain Flora.’ I began it 10 years ago but have never been able to afford to publish it, now when finished I may perhaps be able to do so, if the estimate is not beyond my means. I will send you two or three pages by post if you will let me know whether you would like to see them. (27 May 1910)

It is possible that the alpine flora project of 1910 is connected with the visit to London by Emily’s friend Catherine Ledger, who called on Lady Ellen Rendel, reporting to Emily: ‘Two days ago we went to call on Lady Rendel, we found her most charming and kind, just like your own dear self […] I feel sure that Lady Rendel will help you to bring out your book of Alpine Flowers.’ (15 June 1910) A letter Emily wrote four years later to the Keeper of Botany at the Natural History Museum in London outlines the subsequent history of the Rendel artifact:

‘Some years ago I made a number of drawings of mountain flora. I wanted to publish it in colours but finding the expense too much decided to sell the paintings & when my relative the late Lord Rendel saw the book he liked it so much that he made me an offer to buy it for his private collection which I accepted. He sent me a message that at any time I wished any one to see the book they would be very glad to show it, so if on your return to London you would care to see a very complete collection of NZ mountain flowers, whoever has it now would be pleased to show it to you. (29 Aug 1914)

At some point New Zealand Mountain Flora came into the possession of collector and art dealer Ken Webster, who was active in Britain from 1944 until his death in 1967. In 1970 a collection of New Zealand manuscripts was auctioned by Maggs Brothers in London as part of Webster’s estate. The collection was bought by the Alexander Turnbull Library and Emily Harris’s mock-up of New Zealand Mountain Flora was among its contents. Webster acquired many of his collections from small country museums and estate sales. The death of the Rendels’ unmarried daughter Clarice in 1958 and of her nephew Harry Goodhart Rendel in 1959 are both places to start looking for traces of Emily Harris’s book in Webster’s records, which are also held by Turnbull.

Of the eight poems that accompany the paintings, the first is a partial text appearing above Emily’s preface and the remaining seven, all short, are meditations on particular flowers (edelweiss, snow-berries, spear-grass) or on more general aspects of the alpine environment. All are technically proficient, with a range of rhyme schemes and graceful allusions to a world of living flowers and sublime landscape. Their inclusion in Mountain Flora inclines the work towards artistic rather than botanical presentation, in accordance with Emily’s prefatory statements about bringing previously inaccessible flora to the attention of a general readership. She is insistent about the accuracy of her plant art, placing value on her professional relationship with botanists who have brought her rare specimens for painting. At the same time, the composition of each painting announces the book’s status as an art production.

We are grateful to the Alexander Turnbull Library for permission to reproduce images from New Zealand Mountain Flora.

Michele Leggott
April 2021

Emily Cumming Harris’s New Zealand Mountain Flora


Emily Cumming Harris. New Zealand Mountain Flora. Artist’s book containing 30 ink and watercolour paintings with typescript preface, plant descriptions and 8 poems. Compiled in Nelson, NZ, 1894-[1910?]. 30 bound signatures. Alexander Turnbull Library. E-001-q

William Henry Skinner. Diary entries 22 Apr-5 July 1899 and 7 Feb 1902. Puke Ariki. ARC2001-165. Per Kelvin Day transcripts supplied to Michele Leggott, 30 Jan 2017.

Lady Ellen Sophie Rendel. MS letter to Emily Cumming Harris, Nelson, NZ. Written at Hatchlands Park, Surrey, England, 9 Aug [1902]. Cranstone Papers. Copy at ATL. MS-Papers-0489. Item 15.

Emily Cumming Harris. 4 MS letters to George Fowlds, Ministry of Education, Wellington, NZ. Written in Nelson, NZ, 17 May, 27 May, 20 June and 8 July 1910. University of Auckland. Sir George Fowlds Papers MSS & Archives A-17. Folder 2/135.

Catherine Ann Ledger. MS letter to Emily Cumming Harris, Nelson, NZ. Written at Cornwall Court, 1 Cornwall Terrace, Clarence Gate Regent’s Park, London, England, 15 June 1910. Cranstone Papers. Copy at ATL. MS-Papers-0489. Item 17.

Emily Cumming Harris. MS letter to [Alfred Barton Rendle], British Museum Natural History, London, England. Written in Nelson, NZ, 29 Aug 1914. Natural History Museum. DF BOT/400/10/26