Story: Harris, Emily Cumming

Page 1: Biography

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Harris, Emily Cumming

1836/1837?–1925

Teacher, artist

This biography, written by Moira M. Long, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Emily Cumming Harris, daughter of Sarah Hill and her husband, Edwin Harris, was born in Plymouth, Devonshire, England, probably in 1836 or 1837; the day of her birth was 28 March, although she once wrote in a diary entry, 'I am not sure that I was not born on the 1st of April.' Emily came to New Zealand with her parents, an older brother and a younger sister. They sailed from Plymouth on the William Bryan, the first immigrant ship of the Plymouth Company of New Zealand, on 12 November 1840, and reached New Plymouth, New Zealand, on 31 March 1841. During the voyage Sarah Harris gave birth prematurely to a daughter who died five days later; two more daughters were born in New Zealand.

Emily's father was a civil engineer and surveyor, and also a competent artist who fostered his daughter's early artistic talents. Her mother ran a school, assisted by Emily. Following the outbreak of war in Taranaki in March 1860 (during which Emily's brother was killed), the family moved to Nelson; but Emily Harris went to Hobart, Tasmania, to study art. She spent several years there and in Melbourne before returning to Nelson where she joined her sisters, Frances and Ellen, in running a small primary school and giving private lessons in music, dancing and drawing. Her diary provides a fascinating account of colonial life in Nelson and describes the family's precarious financial circumstances and the life of genteel poverty they were obliged to lead. 'I have kept from going to several places lately', she wrote on one occasion, 'because all my gloves are more or less shabby.'

Emily Harris took her vocation as an artist seriously, but family obligations competed for her attention, and sales of her work were never sufficient to allow her to give up teaching to paint full time. She concentrated on studies of New Zealand flowers and plants, but also painted birds, still lifes and landscapes. She worked mostly in watercolour, but also used a variety of other media.

She showed her work at exhibitions in New Zealand and overseas, including the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879 where she was awarded a first degree of merit, and the 1880–81 Melbourne International Exhibition. At the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition in Wellington in 1885 she won first prize and a silver medal for a painted screen, and third prize for a table-top. In 1886 she was commended for work shown at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. She exhibited again in Melbourne at the Centennial International Exhibition in 1888–89, and organised exhibitions of her own work and work by her father and sisters in Nelson, Wellington, New Plymouth and Stratford in 1889 and 1890, and in New Plymouth in 1899. Although exhibitions furthered her career as an artist and art teacher, her diary records mixed feelings about the pressure to exhibit and sell her work. When asked to submit a painting for the art union at the Wellington exhibition in 1885, she wrote, 'I grow to love my pictures, and after I have worked & thought about & toiled at a picture for a long time I cannot endure the idea of perhaps some half drunken man, who coming into the Exhibition, pays 10/6 and maybe wins my picture.'

In 1890, with the assistance of a Nelson bookseller, H. D. Jackson, Emily Harris published three books: New Zealand flowers, New Zealand ferns, and New Zealand berries (which were published the same year in a single volume, Flowers, ferns, and berries of New Zealand ). Each contained 12 lithographs with descriptive text, and some copies were hand-coloured by Harris herself. However, they failed to compete with the cruder chromolithographs that were used to illustrate several other, more popular botanical works of the period. A further collection of 29 ink and watercolour studies of New Zealand mountain flora, prepared in the 1890s, was never published. Emily Harris also illustrated a children's book, Fairyland in New Zealand, by Sarah Moore (1890). In 1924, 63 of her watercolours were purchased by the Alexander Turnbull Library for 10s. each.

Emily Harris continued to live and work in Nelson until her death on 5 August 1925. She never married. Her mother died in 1879 and her father and sisters Frances and Ellen in the 1890s, and her last years were spent in necessitous circumstances. Her work was well received by her contemporaries, and many of her sensitive plant studies are fine examples of botanical illustration. But her artistic development was restricted by straitened finances and by the conventions of her time, which denied most women an independent career outside the family, and she did not develop beyond the level of a gifted illustrator.

How to cite this page:

Moira M. Long. 'Harris, Emily Cumming', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2h15/harris-emily-cumming (accessed 19 November 2017)