A fascinating research into Florence Harrison
Florence Harrison was a prolific and well-regarded illustrator in the first half of last century. Her early works which she authored and illustrated – ‘The Rhyme of a Run’ (1907), ‘In the Fairy Ring’ (1908) and ‘Elfin Song’ (1912) are now regarded as classics of the genre and make high prices in today’s market.
The exceptionally high quality of her work soon led to commissions by her Glasgow publisher Blackies, to illustrate many of their expensive Fine Art Series of Drawing Room books, such as ‘Christina Rossetti Poems’ (1910), Tennyson’s ‘Guinevere and other poems’ (1912) and ‘Early Poems of William Morris’ (1914), which are now also much in demand. These were issued in very lavish bindings, boxed and with ribbon ties.
The contract for ‘Christina Rossetti’s Poems’ called for 24 full colour pages and 48 black and white, but two years later when she finally delivered her illustrations, they consisted of 36 coloured and 34 61W. In order to meet the printing deadlines, Blackies were forced to accept her submissions and had to absorb the extra costs involved. This may have accounted for the fact that for the rest of her dealings with them, she was not as well-rewarded as others in a comparable situation. It is noticeable that none of the publisher’s records which have survived include payment for her illustrations, only for verse and short stories.
Nevertheless, following her early successes she regularly continued to contribute works for Blackie’s popular ranges of children’s annuals from 1908 through to the beginning of the second World War in 1939, when they were finally discontinued. Although she also worked for a variety of other publishers and periodicals, thereafter Florence gradually faded from public awareness.
It was not until the remnants of Blackie’s archives were auctioned off in 2004 that many of her original works were rediscovered – along with those of other artists, writers and poets. Leading up to the sale, workers employed to clear the site destroyed numerous valuable papers and illustrations from the entire range of the publisher’s files. Fortunately some of Florence’s works were rescued and set aside to be sold.
It was known that between 1887 and 1891, an artist by the name of Emma Florence Harrison had several paintings accepted for Royal Academy exhibitions. It was assumed by the Art World that shortly thereafter, she dropped her first name and continued the rest of her professional career as an illustrator using the single Christian name of Florence. This assumption was repeated so frequently by those who knew no better that until now, Emma has been credited with all works published under the name of Florence Harrison.
What follows is the story of my discovery of the true identity of this gifted artist – a real 20th century detective story – in more ways than one!
It was not until four years ago when I chanced upon a fine copy of “Christina Rossetti poems” that I first became aware of Florence’s artistry. The jewel-like palette of colours and the contrasting vibrancy of the illustrations which characterised her early works so entranced me that I immediately set about trying to discover more about her life.
However, the experts could only repeat the mantra that “little was known about her, except that she had studied at the Glasgow School of Art and had been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement”. It was not known where she was born, where she had lived, nor if she married or when she had died. Well I thought, if an artist of her calibre had been working for that length of time in the UK, those self-same experts must either have been looking in the wrong place, or for the wrong person
The Royal Academy confirmed that Emma’s first painting was entitled “Banks Alley in Tewkesbury” and I wondered if she might have been born somewhere in the vicinity. A visit to the town archives was unproductive, but a search of the internet revealed that an Emma Florence Harrison had been born in nearby Redditch in 1858. With this as a starting point I made it my objective to find out all I could about the artist and have spent the last four years in much time-consuming research.
Emma was the oldest daughter of a family of well-off factory owners manufacturing needles and fishing hooks – for which the town was then famous. She was educated at a private school in Malvern and later studied at one of the London Art Colleges. With my husband, I made trips throughout Britain and later to Europe, in an attempt to flesh out her life history.
Although several gaps remained in the record, when the 1911 census was released I was finally able to confirm that at the age of 53, she had remained single and was then living with two of her sisters in Poole, Dorset. That document also confirmed that she was indeed an artist and I concluded that it was she who had exhibited her paintings in London thirty years earlier.
At that point I was convinced that my researches had established beyond any reasonable doubt that I had succeeded in revealing much of her life story and had thus achieved what the Art fraternity had failed to in more than 100 years.
I quickly set up a website under the title “Emma Florence Harrison, the definitive story” – which included all the facts known at that time. Fortunately, as it turned out, I also made provision within the site for interested parties to contact me if they wished to do so, in order to share our passion for the artist and her work.
At the same time unbeknown to me, 10,000 miles away on the other side of the world in Sydney, Australia a retired lady detective had recently purchased her first computer and was demonstrating to her elderly mother the wonders of the Internet. My site had only been on line for a matter of days when, as most of us do at one time or another, out of idle curiosity they entered their family name (Harrison) into the search engine. By one of those remarkable coincidences, what should appear but my website claiming to have rediscovered
the “real” illustrator Florence Harrison
That same day I was astonished to receive a message from the lady in Australia saying that she was the great niece of Florence. The details on my website were she claimed, very interesting, but factually incorrect because the full name of the artist who had worked for Blackies for so long was Florence Susan Harrison, born in Brisbane in 1878 aboard the clipper ship “Windsor Castle” – and whose father Norwood Harrison, was master of the vessel which transported emigrants to Australia and returned to the UK with general cargoes of the day.
The lady promised to let me have copies of handwritten correspondence from Florence Susan, together with facsimiles of some previously unrecorded original works which she had sent to the family in Sydney in the mid 1950’s -and a photograph of her taken of her aged 74 in Brighton, Sussex.
When the promised material arrived I was able to compare the handwriting with that on the many original pen and ink drawings from the Blackies files, which I had gradually assembled over the previous four years. There was no doubt whatsoever that it was by the same hand. Equally, the style of the artwork sent to the family was unmistakably that of the Florence whose works had appeared in so many children’s annuals for over 30 years.
Although I was initially reluctant to accept that I had been barking up the wrong tree, after several telephone conversations with the family in Sydney, I realised that despite my previous claims to have discovered the “real” Florence Harrison, I too had fallen into the trap of ascribing her works to Emma Florence. Nevertheless I soon realised that there was no doubting their story and that, albeit by a circuitous route, I had finally achieved my goal.
And what of the Artworld’s claim that she had attended the Glasgow School of Art, which had been one of the few so-called facts “known” about her? Detailed searches of the School registers of the time confirmed that no-one of either name had ever been enrolled as a student, so that assumption had also been incorrect. In all probability her only connection with the city had been as a contributor to Blackies. As for having been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, I leave to those better qualified than myself to decide whether or not there is any realistic foundation in that theory.
In 1881 aged 3, Florence Susan was at a school Folkestone run by her great-aunt, together with her parents who were probably temporarily ashore between voyages. She does not appear in the census of 1891 and so it is safe to assume that she was once again on board a vessel with her father somewhere en route to the Far East. It is not until ten years later in 1901 that she once again turns up on the census – aged 23 living in Leytonstone with her mother- who is by then in her late 50’s.
It was in May of that year that her works first came to the notice of the Fine Art fraternity, when her entry was ‘Highly Commended’ in a competition by ‘The Studio’ for the design of an embroidered panel for a firescreen.
From the remnants of Blackie’s ledgers we learned that from 1908 until 1914 -and again from July 1918 to the end of 1920 – she was working from an address in Belgium. Unfortunately the address as written, does not withstand scrutiny and my research continues to verify where exactly she had resided during those years either side of World War 1.
Belgium was in immediate danger of being over-run by the German invaders at the beginning of the war, so it is understandable that she may then have relocated back to the UK, but why would she have returned before the Armistice in November 1918, to a country which had been laid waste during the hostilities? It is at present merely speculation, but like so many English women of that era, could it be that she lost the man in her life on the Western Front and given that she did not later marry, never have recovered from that tragedy ? Alternatively might she have enrolled as a nurse – like many other middle-class women of the time? We may never know.
By May 1922 she was back in this country at an address on the South Bank of the Thames in Putney, where she remained for the next five years before moving to a studio in South Kensington until at least the end of 1929.
In 1927 Florence Susan had linked up with the Irish writer Enid Dinnis who, in addition to being an author of religious books was a contributor to many Catholic publications – foremost among them being ‘The Sign’ (an American National Catholic monthly magazine) and this association continued up to 1942 when Dinnis died.
That Florence was still living somewhere in London during the early part of WW2 is supported by several of her drawings for Dinnis’ stories which feature evacuees leaving for the country, bomb damage, sand-bagged streets – and most remarkable of all, a German Junkers 88 bomber. A far cry from the fairies and little people which featured so widely in her early illustrations for children’s books! At this stage of her career, Florence worked exclusively in black ink stippled/line drawings which contrast so dramatically with her early works characterised by the profusion of vibrant colours.
After Dinnis’ death it appears that Florence’s career also came to an end, although she continued to produce occasional works for her friends and closest family – who by this time had left for a new life in Australia.
In 1954 her Australian relatives visited the UK for a family wedding in Scotland and this turned out to be their final meeting. It is from this visit that the only known photograph of Florence exists – taken in Brighton. Remarkably, it also transpires that one of her ancestors was no other than John Harrison, the inventor of the first effective chronometer, whose timepieces enabled seafarers for the first time to accurately calculate their actual longitude, thus saving countless lives. After a long battle, John was finally awarded the prize of £ 20,000 by the British Government and his chronometers now occupy pride of place at Greenwich Observatory.
Florence finally passed away on 5th January 1955 at the age of 78 from heart failure at Hove in Sussex.
As a footnote, at no time during my extensive initial studies did I turn up any illustrations by Emma and the whereabouts of her Royal Academy paintings remains unknown. However a recent closer examination of the series of postcards produced by Vivian Mansell reveals that the monogram – whilst similar to that of Florence Susan – does consist of the letters EFH. Given that the style differs so markedly from all other works ascribed to Florence Susan, could these be the only surviving works of the other (Emma) Harrison? Perhaps a student of Emma’s works might be able to verify and expand on this theory.
Clearly, many if not all, present-day Art reference books (and seller’s catalogues) will now need to be amended to include my findings and it is to be hoped that should there be any doubt, they will contact me direct to obtain such proof as may be required. Also of course, should any of your readers be able to expand upon the contents of this article, I shall be happy to hear from them.
2 October 2009