Behind The Scenes, 21 August 2019: A chance enquiry leads to a great discovery
by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer
with many thanks to Professor Michele Leggott, Nigel Overton and Terah Walkup
A recent visit to our store by a researcher from New Zealand has enabled us to rediscover and learn the real story behind a painting in our art collection.
Professor Michele Leggott from Auckland University was New Zealand’s first poet laureate from 2008-9. She is currently heavily engaged with research into the family and archive associated with a Plymouth-born artist and surveyor called Edwin Harris (1806-1895). Following a series of extended email exchanges, she visited with her husband earlier this year and we took her on a special tour to locations around the city relating to the Harris family.
Edwin, his wife Sarah and eldest three children emigrated on the William Bryan, which left Plymouth on 19 November 1840. The ship carried the first colonists sent to settle at New Plymouth, on the North Island of New Zealand by the Plymouth Company of New Zealand.
The family went through some tough times. Sarah lost the baby that would have been their fourth child whilst on board the ship. Once in New Zealand their first house burnt down and they lost almost all their possessions. They witnessed the events of the first Anglo-Maori War (some of which Edwin painted) and suffered the untimely death of their eldest son Hugh in an ambush.
Michele’s visit to the city also included a trip to our offsite store during which she helped reveal lots of interesting information about a painting of the interior of St Andrew’s Church.
The painting was donated to our collections in 1896 when Plymouth’s museum service was being set up. There has since been some confusion about its provenance and it has become attributed it to a different Edwin Harris (1856-1906), a Birmingham-born artist who lived in the Cornish town of Newlyn during the late 1800’s. Although it differs in style to this Edwin’s other paintings, mostly portraits, we own many works by ‘Newlyn School’ artists.
Thanks to Michele’s visit we now know our painting was most definitely the work of Plymouth born Edwin Harris. Here are some extracts from her blog about it:
The year is 1896. Edwin Harris and his youngest daughter Ellen are dead, and Emily is living alone at 34 Nile St in Nelson. On black-edged notepaper she writes to her sister Mary Weyegang with some important news from England. A letter has come from cousin Bessie Harris in Plymouth, thanking Emily for the condolences sent on hearing of the death of Edwin’s brother Henry Marmaduke Harris. Then Bessie describes how her brothers have recently presented the Plymouth borough council with a painting by Edwin Harris, made before emigrating to new Zealand 55 years previously:
“Father used to be very proud of a fine interior of Old Church (now usually known as St Andrews) and two of my brothers have bought it, for father’s will made that necessary and have themselves presented it to the town, first restoring it and its frame.”
Michele also shared this great description about her visit to our store:
And so we are at the museum’s off-site store this morning, looking at a painting now 194 years old. The painting is elaborately framed in gold, a family treasure presented to the city fathers and commemorating St Andrew’s Anglican Church as it appeared in 1825, looking down the central aisle from behind the altar rail, taking in the old stone columns of the nave, the intricately coffered roof and some open skylights long since removed. The perspective is flawless, the detail impressive and the artist’s attention to the fall of light on surfaces is something we recognise from Edwin’s later work in New Zealand. A flash of red velvet relieves the greys and browns of the interior, which is without a single human figure.
We think Edwin would have been about 19 when he created the painting. It is said to have been painted in order to prove his artistic ability and secure permission to study the collections of the Plymouth Athenaeum. As well as being a work that he was clearly proud of and demonstrated his talent, the Harris family had strong links with St Andrew’s. It’s where Edwin’s wife Sarah Hill (1806-1879) and her sisters were baptised in the early 1800s. It’s the church where Edwin married Sarah in 1833 and where their eldest son was baptised in 1835. Further research by the City Library’s Graham Naylor has confirmed that Edwin’s painting captures the interior of St Andrew’s before John Foulston’s interventions, which themselves were, of course, destroyed in the Plymouth ‘Blitz’.
You can read the post in full here and find out more about the Harris family on the same site.
An added bonus of Michele’s visit is how it’s highlighted the wider Plymouth connections and stories of the Harris family. We have recently acquired watercolours associated with Edwin’s eldest brother James Cobham Harris (1794-1876), a portrait painter. The Harris family archive in New Zealand includes a carte de viste portrait of James holding his paint palette. Edwin’s Plymouth-born daughter Emily (1836-1925), who was the original focus for Michele’s studies, went on to become an important poet and botanical artist in New Zealand.
Through marriages the family are also connected to other important Plymouth people, including eminent civil engineer James Meadows Rendel (Emily refers to him in letters as ‘Uncle Rendel’) and George Clarise Dobson who, like Edwin Harris himself, worked in Rendel’s practice (his signature appears on engineering drawings of the first Torpoint Ferry). In addition, a good number of framed works in our fine art collection bear the distinctive label of the Plymouth-based family firm of Harris & Sons.
It’s great when these connections happen. Our friends in New Zealand are keen to foster our new relationship – and hopefully better celebrate the historical association between Plymouth, Devon and New Plymouth. Watch this space…!