"I… love my paintings and cannot bear to have them slighted, indeed it worries me so that it always makes me ill more or less, I wish that I did not care so much, it is perfectly ridiculous to do as I have been doing the last fortnight grown thin from nervous anxiety, if I waste away as I have done the last week, I shall soon be nothing but skin and bones."
Emily Harris was always slightly fretful and sensitive over her work and a bit of a hypochondriac - but this time she had good reason. It was her big New Zealand debut as an artist, an opportunity for recognition and a chance to earn some money to pay the family bills.
The botanical and landscape artist had several pieces in the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition of 1885 held in Wellington: two folding screens, a fan, a small table-top and a small table screen.
Her diary reveals that things got off to a bad start - one of the pieces was slightly damaged on the trip over from Nelson, her work had been poorly exhibited, rain was getting into the exhibition area and sales had been non-existent.
To top it all off the critics had described her work as ‘pretty and original’ - Emily was most put-out. "I should not have minded it being a few words if I liked the words, but ‘pretty’ -the writer could not have known anything about Art or he would not have used such a word…"
Emily's anxiety was eased only when she was awarded first prize for the screen painted on satin and third prize for her hand-painted table-top. "I felt so thankful to have got a first that I felt as though I would get well at once."
From Plymouth to New Plymouth
Emily Cumming Harris was born into a life of ‘genteel poverty’ in Plymouth, England on 28 March 1836 or 1837, the eldest daughter of Sarah and Edwin Harris. Edwin was a civil engineer and surveyor, and an artist. In 1840 Edwin, Sarah, Emily, her brother Hugh and younger sister Kate set sail for New Zealand on the William Bryan.
They were among 148 passengers on the ship - the first immigrant ship of the Plymouth Company to sail to New Zealand. Immigrants had been promised a free section of land on their arrival in New Plymouth. Sarah gave birth during the four-and-a-half month journey, but the little girl lived only five days and was buried at sea.
The Harris family lived in a part raupo/wood hut with no windows or doors. Within two months of their arrival it burnt down - almost all the family's possessions were lost, including prized possessions from England. Fellow settlers set up a relief fund to help out the family - but no-one had much.
Sarah wrote in a letter to her parents: "The loss by the fire was a very serious trouble to us, the few settlers had nothing to sell or give and the store required money for goods which had to be earned first. So I collected a great many burnt articles and made cloth shoes for the children which came in useful until a box of things came from England 12 months later."
Little is known about Emily's childhood, she wrote a diary but, to her later regret, burnt it when she heard her parents laughing over it.
Edwin found work as a surveyor for Frederic Carrington, chief surveyor of the Plymouth Company. He continued with his artwork, and is known as the first resident artist in Taranaki.
Frances was born, then Ellen. Sarah set up a primary school close to the present site of the Frankley Road Primary School. A second school was opened in the ‘Hurden’ church and, when Emily was old enough, she worked there as an assistant to her mother.
Emily's father introduced her to art, teaching her the rudimentary skills of sketching and painting. Ellen and Frances too, took up the brush. The surrounding countryside would have provided the young sisters with plenty of interesting subjects to paint, from delicate ferns to sweeping forest and the daily activity in the little settlement. It was here, in the bushy surroundings of her family home that Emily's love of botanical painting developed.
War comes to Taranaki
The outbreak of war in Taranaki in 1860 brought heartbreak to the Harris family. Emily's older brother Hugh was a volunteer in the Camp Waitara, along with other civilians. The 25-year-old and two soldiers were out collecting firewood when all three of them, unarmed, were killed, ‘cruelly murdered by the rebel Maoris’.
Governor Browne called a state of marshal law in the province and many families, the Harris's included, abandoned their farms and moved to Nelson.
But 24-year-old Emily did not go directly to Nelson - she was sent to Tasmania to study art in Hobart. She stayed several years there, and in Melbourne, before joining her family in Nelson.
Emily's great interest was in painting botanical subjects, particularly native plants, but she also did landscapes and some still life works.
In Nelson Edwin gained work as an art teacher at the Bishop of Nelson's School. Sarah died in 1878. Edwin reluctantly retired from work in 1889 aged 84.
The Harris family stayed together - neither Emily nor her sisters married - even though colonial New Zealand was crying out for eligible women. We'll never know why they didn't marry - perhaps there were just no suitable eligible men.
The three sisters - Emily, Frances and Ellen - ran a small private school in Nelson and also taught drawing, dancing and music. Teaching wasn't Emily's first love, and she resented having her time taken up with school affairs, leaving little time for painting.
But teach they must, because the family was not well off. They often struggled financially as Emily's diary entry from April 1889 reveals: "…when one is not earning enough by the school to pay the household bills, there must always be an undercurrent of trouble however one may try to appear at ease before the world. Ellen has not had one music pupil this year, nor have I had one drawing pupil, so that we are both without money, and we both want things for the winter…"
Despite their financial woes the Harris's were a prominent and popular family in the Nelson. They were enthusiastic supporters of the local community. Helping with fundraising fairs at the local church, sewing for Dr Barnados homes, and, despite being in financial difficulties themselves, would teach children free of charge when parents were unable to pay.
The sisters had a wide circle of friends, who helped them out in times of need. When Ellen was ill, friends kept the family supplied with soup, eggs, jellies and wine. When an opera company came to town they would never have been able to afford seats, but a friend gave them three tickets.
The sisters and their friends often went camping - a cheap way of having a small holiday. It gave Emily an excuse to sit at her easel all day, sketching and painting.
Health was an ongoing issue, Ellen was constantly ill, and Emily seemed to have a case of hypochondria - her diary is full of little worries and anxieties over her health - poor eyesight, a racing heart…
She appeared to be in a continuous state of nervous tension over the family's financial affairs. Selling her paintings became a necessity to earn money. In November 1889 she wrote: "I have added up all our accounts and find we cannot pay all we owe."
Art is the answer
Her solution was to hold an exhibition of the family's artwork – her father and sisters were all creditable artists - in the schoolroom, charging people a shilling for entry. It was a huge success, raising enough money to pay off debts, with enough left over for Emily to have a holiday, and hold an exhibition in New Plymouth.
The New Plymouth exhibition, held in January 1890, was a dismal failure. Very few people attended, and little work was sold. But another exhibition in Stratford proved more popular.
It was burning season in Taranaki, and several forest fires were raging out of control. Emily awoke one night to find the Inglewood home she was staying in surrounded by crackling and burning forest " the wind was raging and driving showers of sparks and flame toward the town." She joined in the midnight rush for buckets and water to dampen down the cottage roof.
Emily's need to raise money to survive spurred her on to broaden her market. By entering colonial and imperial exhibitions both locally and overseas, the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition in 1888, and the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886, Emily gained recognition but not the financial security she desired. "My things are admired… but I seem to derive no benefit from it so it has a dash of disappointment in it."
Local demand for Emily's work remained stagnant, and international recognition did not bring students rushing to the sisters' school. Desperate to make money Emily decided on a new path - to publish a book. Luckily, a Nelson bookseller offered to bear the cost of publishing in return for a portion of the profits.
In 1890 Emily's three books were published: New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Ferns, and New Zealand Berries. Each book was made up of 12 lithographs with accompanying descriptive text. Emily hand painted some copies of the books.
But the timing of the book was slightly off, other more colourful books by artists Sarah Fenton and Georgina Hetley were already available and selling well. Emily's publications while, not a dismal failure, were not the success she had hoped. Another book, the finely detailed New Zealand Mountain Flora, was never published.
But all was not lost, Emily had one last foray into print - illustrating a children's book by Mrs Ambrose E. Moore. Fairyland in New Zealand (1909) is a tale rich in adventure, complimented by Emily's pictures: some dramatic, some delicate New Zealand native plants with fairies hidden among the leaves.
A successful artist?
Despite her precarious financial situation Emily was a successful artist in colonial terms. Her work was highly regarded by artists such as family friend John Gully, who provided encouragement and support.
Modern-day art historians have described Emily's artwork 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 French botanical drawing.’ Her unpublished book New Zealand Mountain Flora impressed one critic who said it was a particularly superb example of botanical illustration.
Had Emily been born in a different era, or her family been in a healthier financial situation, her talent as an artist may have been able to realise its full potential.
Unhappily, Emily's final years were as financially stressful as the rest of her life. She outlived her family by many years - Frances died in 1892 and Edwin and Ellen died in 1895.
In 1924 Emily achieved a little success - the Alexander Turnbull Library purchased 63 of her water colours. Emily continued to live and paint in the family home in Nelson, until her death aged 88, on 5 August 1925.
Published 21 July 2005
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