Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art

XI — Emily Harris's Flowers, Berries and Ferns

page 97

Emily Harris's Flowers, Berries and Ferns

Emily Cumming Harris (1837?-1925) was about four years old when she arrived in New Plymouth on 31 March 1841 on the 311-ton barque William Bryan. This was the first immigrant ship of the Plymouth Company (which merged with the New Zealand Company in 1842) to reach New Zealand. Emily's parents, Edwin and Sarah Harris, her brother Hugh, two years older than Emily, and another sister (?Kate) accompanied her. Great-great grandparents of my own, and their six children, were among the 148 passengers on a voyage that lasted four and a half months. Prior to departure from Plymouth, England, each emigrant was promised a free section of land in New Plymouth. Edwin Harris's sketches of the first sight of New Zealand (west coast of the South Island) and the William Bryan near New Plymouth still survive. Described as one of the lesser New Zealand artists of the last half of the nineteenth century, he has a place in history as the first resident artist in Taranaki.

Within two months of their arrival, the Harris family lost most of their possessions when their house, made partly of raupo, burnt down. Fellow settlers subscribed generously to a fund for them. Edwin Harris, a civil engineer and surveyor, spent the first eighteen months as a surveyor, under the direction of Frederick Carrington, Chief Surveyor of the Plymouth Company and founder of the New Plymouth settlement. Within about a year they had another daughter, Frances, and six years later Ellen was born. Sarah Harris (née Hill) started a primary school close to the present site of the Frankley Road Primary School. A second school was opened in the "Hurden" (Primitive Methodist) Church, near the junction of Elliot and Cowling Roads, and Emily became, in time, assistant teacher there.

As a result of the Waitara War, the Harris family, like many other Taranaki residents, moved to Nelson in about 1860. Emily, however, was sent to Hobart to study art. After the battles were over, the family remained in Nelson. Edwin became an art teacher at Nelson College, then taught drawing at the Bishop of Nelson's School for nearly twenty years. In 1889, by which time he was eighty-four, he agreed reluctantly to retire. The Bishop of Nelson confessed to Emily that her father's teaching methods were page 98 out-dated and, at the school breakup in December, he presented Edwin with an easy chair and a quarter's salary. Emily and her unmarried sisters, Frances and Ellen, ran a small private school in Nelson and also taught music, dancing and drawing. From 1885 to 1890 Emily kept a diary, which is now in the Taranaki Museum; typescripts are in the Alexander Turnbull Library. It is a fascinating journal, a commentary on colonial society and a well-educated family who lived a life of genteel poverty. Unfortunately, Emily burnt an earlier diary of her life in New Plymouth when she discovered her parents chuckling over it. She destroyed it before they had a chance to explain their amusement was not ridicule and that they thought it a very worthwhile document.

Emily took painting more seriously than Frances or Ellen, although they too were sometimes able to sell their work. Her greatest interest was in painting botanical subjects, especially native plants, but she also did landscapes and, as her diary recorded, some still life and bird life (for example, "Bellbird on Clematis''). She first painted with watercolours on white drawing paper, then Bristol board. After visiting the Melbourne Exhibition (1880), she began painting on satin and coloured paper, and later some of her paintings were in oils. Despite the cost involved in packing and shipping her art works, which included screens, table tops and mantle drapes, Emily Harris exhibited at the New Zealand court of the Melbourne Exhibition (1880), at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts (which was formed in 1882) in Wellington, at the Auckland Art Students' Exhibition (1885) and the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition (Wellington, 1885). In 1885 she attended a public meeting when the organiser of the New Zealand court for the Indian and Colonial Exhibition (held in London in 1886), Dr Julius von Haast, visited Nelson to talk to potential exhibitors. It is an interesting reflection of the times that von Haast, the famous geologist and explorer of New Zealand, later noted that this was the first occasion that ladies had attended one of his meetings (Emily was accompanied by three other women).

The exhibits Emily sent to London gained favourable notices, and a black satin fire screen with white flowers painted on it, encased in a fine wooden fretwork surround, gained a first prize and silver medal at the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition. However, the recognition gained in such exhibitions did not lead to an increase in local sales or to more pupils. Emily recorded in her dairy that 1885 had not been a good year,

as far as selling went the worst year I have had for some time — a great deal of expense with my exhibits and very little received, no sale for cards, our school much less, indeed if I do not get some drawing pupils, I shall be ruined, unless something else turns up. Ellen has been fortunate to get six music pupils or what would have happened I don't know.

The Harrises were a well-known and well-liked family and their precarious financial position did not go unnoticed, for friends frequently gave tactful help. When Ellen had a long illness during the winter of 1886, friends page 99 "kept us supplied with wine, brandy, porter [beer brewed from charred or browned malt], eggs, soup, jellies and many other things". The Harris sisters were kind — Emily recorded receiving a letter from a woman thanking her for teaching her daughter for so long without payment — and community minded. They frequently took part in fund-raising for such groups as their church and Dr Barnado Homes. When Emily, Frances and Ellen gave weeks of their time to preparing and rehearsing a tableau (theatrical entertainment), the cast, knowing of their needs and lack of funds, presented them with a new sewing machine.

In November 1889 Emily wrote, "I have added up all our accounts and find we cannot pay all we owe." So an exhibition was arranged in Nelson — admission: one shilling; season ticket: two shillings. Her father and sisters contributed paintings, sales were good and the bills were paid. Enough cash remained for Emily to board the S.S. Mahinapua for a trip to New Plymouth to visit Mary (probably a married sister) and to exhibit some of the family's paintings there. The sale of paintings in New Plymouth covered expenses only ("They tell me this is a musical place, not at all artistic"). Mrs Hetley saw the exhibition, Emily noted. Emily visited Mt Egmont and on the return journey:

When we emerged from the forest we found that our road lay through a bush clearing which had been on fire some days before and which had unhappily burnt some of the finest trees in the forest. We found that there were fires in many directions, it was the season for burning. To me it seemed dreadful to see the lovely forest so recklessly destroyed.

More paintings were sold when the Harris exhibition was held in Stratford, though sales were mostly to friends.

Another family exhibition was held in Nelson in August 1890, and sales were encouraging. This inspired Emily to send five cases of pictures to Wellington and arrange an exhibition there. During her visit she had tea with Thomas Kirk and his wife — "Mr Kirk showed me a lot of lovely pressed flowers from Campbell Island and lent me some to copy, he is coming tomorrow to show me over the Botanical Gardens." Although local newspapers had published favourable notices of the Harris exhibition, hardly anyone visited it. Emily sadly noted that the Wellington public had been so often taken in by worthless exhibitions "that they cannot imagine mine to be really good". It also coincided with the elections and the circus — "They go by the thousands to the circus."

In the hope of making some money, Emily Harris decided to have some of her botanical paintings of New Zealand plants published in book form. Through the agency of a Nelson bookseller and stationer, H. D. Jackson, she obtained a quotation from S. W. Walker & Co., London, but their estimate was too high. Mr H. D. Jackson kindly agreed to bear the cost of publishing in return for a share of any profits. In 1890 Emily Harris's three small books, New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns, appeared. Prior to printing in England, sample paintings page 100 were displayed, and Emily and her family and friends obtained subscriptions for about two-thirds of the number of sets that were to be printed. Each book contained twelve plates; some sets were uncoloured, others were hand-coloured by Emily. The subdued and delicate colours of the latter sets could not compete with the brightly coloured and larger volumes of the Featons and Mrs Hetley. Later, some copies of the book (in coloured and uncoloured versions) were sold in a single volume.

Emily Harris's work was highly regarded by artistic friends. The well-known painter John Gully and his family were close friends, and Gully, who died in 1888, gave constant encouragement and support to Emily. She wrote in her diary, after receiving praise from a school teacher, Miss Hamilton, for the fire screen she had exhibited in Wellington: "When she had gone I felt it was something to have the power to give such great pleasure to any one. It is a fact strange perhaps yet true, how little I think about and how seldom I remember compliments I receive, but this lady's was unusual."

The diary ended in 1890. Two years later Frances died and in 1895, both Ellen (aged forty-four) and then her father, the latter on 25 May.

A book entitled New Zealand Mountain Flora was completed in the 1890s but remained unpublished. It was purchased in London in 1970 by the Alexander Turnbull Library. Emily Harris illustrated a children's book, Fairyland in New Zealand: a Story of the Caves, by Mrs Ambrose Eyles Moore (Sarah Rebecca Moore), published by Brett Printing and Publishing Company, Auckland, in 1909. This fifty-eight page story is not lacking in incident, involving as it does an Austrian geologist, friendly Maoris (including a servant named Tekooti!), a fairy queen, a fairy godmother, smugglers and, to cap them all, a tuatara, that with a kiss from a fairy, becomes a handsome prince. There are six full-page, black-and-white illustrations with titles such as "The fairy queen of the cave finds a mortal child", "At the Maori Pah", "The smugglers find Fayette". Other drawings by Emily decorate the twelve chapter headings. New Zealand plants are not neglected, for the illustrations clearly include native ratas (Metrosideros species), flax (Phormium), manuka {Leptospermum scoparium), Clematis and the Mt Cook lily {Ranunculus lyallii), one of her favourite subjects.

Emily continued to live in the family home at 24 Nile Street East, Nelson, and painted and sketched for the rest of her life. In 1924 the Alexander Turnbull Library purchased sixty-three of her watercolours of New Zealand plants for ten shillings each. A set of three prints from this collection was issued in 1968 in an edition of 2,500, and in 1979 a further edition of four different prints was issued. Each of the two sets contained a folder in which a further painting was illustrated (in black and white in the first set), as well as brief notes on the plants illustrated and biographical details of Emily Harris. The second set has two other paintings reproduced on the text sheet.

Emily Harris died in Nelson on 5 August 1925, aged eighty-eight.

page 101

The illustrations

As others have noted, Emily Harris's paintings vary considerably in quality and style. The lithographs in New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns are very well composed and accurate. In the hand-coloured versions the colouring, though rather subdued, is reasonably true to life. However, these lack fine details of, for example, leaf venation and flower structure. The books lack a text except for the scientific and Maori or popular names of each plant and a sentence or two about the plant and its distribution. This information is printed below each illustration. New Zealand Berries should have been titled New Zealand Fruits, for several of the fruits illustrated are not, strictly speaking, berries.

Some of the watercolours in the Alexander Turnbull collection are fine works of art, rather than good examples of scientific botanical illustration. Janet Paul, well-known art historian, (in Women in New Zealand Society, edited by Phillida Bunkle and Beryl Hughes, published by George Allen & Unwin, 1980) described the watercolours as "poetic realisations which try to evoke the essence of a particular plant in a way more akin to a Chinese brush drawing than to the precise elegance of the French botanical engravings".

The pen, ink and watercolour originals for the unpublished New Zealand Mountain Flora (PLATES 33 and 34) are superb examples of botanical illustration. They are quite finely detailed, especially the creeping lawyer (Plate 34), and vividly and accurately coloured. The plants are shown in their environments, and this represents an advance on most of the botanical illustrations of predecessors and contemporaries. It may be that in some instances, where the plants seem to fit "uneasily" into their background, that Emily Harris did not see them in their natural habitat. In such cases the background seems to have been painted from a photograph. The twenty-nine illustrations (which include a frontispiece) are on paper about 25 x 31 centimetres and are watercolours with outlines in Indian ink. Each illustration is accompanied by a brief text, giving some details of the plants and their distribution. As was fashionable in the Victorian age, some plants are the subject of "delightfully awful" poems, written by the artist. Thus the edelweiss (Plate 33):

Enwrapped in garments soft and warm,
As robes of eider down,
And velvet capes, all starred with gold,
Serve for a royal crown.

Straight to the skies their upward gaze,
Unchecked, unblenched they turn,
As if to reach some loftier plane,
These gentle flowerets yearn.