Florence Susan Harrison
According to The Brisbane Courier of that time, the arrival of the schooner the "Windsor Castle" with 366 immigrants had been controversial. Typhoid fever had been reported on board and the port Health Officer refused to permit the discharge of passengers. However this decision was overruled by the Central Board of Health, which led to allegations of favouritism towards British vessels and an acrimonious debate in the Australian Parliament.
My correspondent in Sydney sent me photographs of Harrison with other family members; one taken in the 1930's and the other during their final meeting in Brighton in 1953. Sometime later she also located copies of several personal letters written by Harrison during the 1950's.
My first concern was to verify that the handwriting in the letters matched the manuscript notations on the original pieces of artwork that I owned. These notes included her instructions to the printers to adjust the scale of the original works to suit the format of the books, in order to achieve proper balance within the page illustrations. There was no doubt that they were by the same hand.
I was then sent copies of various pieces of artwork that Harrison had created specifically for her family - greeting cards and the like - which had therefore never previously been recorded. Once again, there could be no possible doubt that these were in Harrison's own unmistakeable style and inscribed in the same handwriting.
My excitement at this discovery was matched by the enthusiasm of her family in Sydney. My website contained many illustrations and written works of which they had previously been unaware and a few weeks later they flew to England to spend a several days with us in Norfolk. During their visit we learned a great deal more about their family and about Harrison's earlier life. I used this information to renew my research of the various records now available to us all as a result of the information explosion. But this time I was searching from a position of knowledge and soon began to piece together a framework for her life.
Florence Susan was the second daughter of Captain Norwood Harrison and his wife Lucy. Their first daughter Edith died during early childhood and two younger brothers Arthur and Godfrey, were born later. The family were Anglicans and much of Florence's education must have been carried out by her closest family during long periods at sea with her parents. Between voyages, however, she attended a school run by a relative in Folkestone.
Her first published illustrations appeared in Rhymes and Reasons (Blackie 1905) and the popularity of that book quickly led to a further commission entitled The Rhyme of a Run. Both of these books were aimed at the expanding children's market of the time. They were very well received : the Atheneum praised the "charming imagination in both verse and pictures".
The following year Harrison received £100 (approximately £8500 at today's values) for a further collection of her verse entitled In the Fairy Ring. This was aimed at a more adult market and the Pall Mall Gazette commented " ..so excellent are the drawings that they earn Miss Harrison a very high place among the illustrators of children's books".
In 1908 Blackie commissioned Harrison to illustrate a major gift book destined specifically for the adult market as part of their Fine Art Series. This appeared as Poems by Christina Rossetti. Such was the success of this venture that it soon led to contracts for two similar volumes entitled Guinevere and other poems (Tennyson, 1912) and The Early poems of William Morris (1914).
Whilst illustrating these, Harrison was busy working on her own collection of verse - Elfin Song - and this also proved a major success. It was selected by Blackie as its gift book of the season in 1912 and contemporary reviewers considered that " ....it surpasses anything she has hitherto done .... is an exquisite gift-book, rich in imagination ..... an absolute joy. The verse has a romantic and magic quality which appeals to all ages. The same qualities show in her illustrations which are in the pre-Raphaelite tradition .... with a characteristic and outstanding sense of colour".
Whether she received any formal artistic training has yet to be established, but it is known that from 1922 she lived at various addresses in the London area. Curiously, during the years spanning the first world war, she received payment from Blackie at an address in Belgium, but my attempts to discover why she was there, or where she might have resided, have been frustrated because the address is written in a confusing mix of Flemish, French and English language conventions.
It is possible she intended to further her art studies there and then perhaps to stay on as a volunteer nurse like other unattached ladies of the times. She may equally have returned to England for the duration of the war, although if she did leave, you have to wonder why she would she have gone back to Belgium, laid waste during the conflict, in February 1918, a full nine months before the armistice.
What is clear, however, is that influences from her time there can be found in many of her illustrations. For example, her much-acclaimed book Elfin Song (1912) includes the poem "The Gargoyle and the Chestnut Tree" with an image of the gargoyle identical to those found on churches in the Bruges area.
Similarly, in Mrs. Strang's Annual for Children (1922) Harriuson's illustrations for the story "To the Sunset Land" include a that of a boy named Groote clad in typical Flemish workers clothing and wearing wooden clogs, captioned "He came to a large Town". The townscape pictured is clearly the much-visited tourist attraction of Bruges town centre. The same book also contains a reference to the fine qualities of Flemish silk.
Certain symbols characterise many of Florence's illustrations and these appear repeatedly throughout her works. One example is apples: some images of these are used as supplementary decoration to a main theme, in baskets for sale, or as a gift. In "The early Poems of William Morris", the housewife is portrayed in medieval dress carrying a bowl of ripe apples. In "Tinkler Johnny" (1916) a sprite steals an apple from the seller's basket and teases her by tying a streamer to her bonnet. This particular image was used as the pasted-on front cover in a later re-issue. In Mrs. Strang's Annual for Girls (1923), a court scene shows a page with a similar basket of rosy apples being presented to the princess.
Apples and Flemish themes recur together in a full-page coloured illustration in Mrs. Strang's Annual for Children (1924) and in one of Harrison's first religious stories "The Big Littleness of Brother Aloysius" published in Blackie's Girls Annual (1931), which shows the subject picking apples in a monastery orchard.
Other motifs repeatedly encountered in her works for children are : crows or rooks; fairies with wing-spots resembling those of a Peacock butterfly; elves; storm lanterns; and roses.
From the mid 1920's however, Harrison was no longer working on new assignments for Blackie, although the publisher continued to recycle her previous works until 1940. In 1922 she received her first commissions from Oxford University Press for their series of children's annuals published under the various Strang titles. This work meant that Harrison was less affected than many of her fellow illustrators by the Great Depression of the 1930's.
It was during her stay in Belgium that Florence probably first met author Enid Maud Dinnis, the daughter of an Anglican priest. Dinnis attended school in Belgium and converted to Catholicism. I believe that her friend's views, plus the profound effects of the carnage of war, challenged Harrison's existing spiritual beliefs.
Dinnis was the author of several books, but much of her work was for the American Catholic magazine "The Sign", for which Harrison supplied all the required illustrations. In contrast to much of her earlier work, which was rich in colour, the publisher stipulated that all images for this magazine were executed in black ink.
Although Harrison made her name with the brilliant jewel-like colouring of her works in the pre-Raphaelite genre, throughout her professional career she developed a more whimsical style needed to capture the imagination of a younger audience. War and her conversion to Catholicism meant that her career concluded with images in more sombre tones reflecting the more spiritual and religious themes and preoccupations.
The world had changed dramatically during her lifetime. Her initial commissions captured the romantic revivals of the late Victorian era. Her most productive period was spent producing fairies and elves for Blackie. And then her later works for The Sign, which portray scenes of devastation in second world war in London, where she was then living.
Harrison never married and with the death of her friend Dinnis at the height of the Blitz she moved to Brighton to live with her cousin Isobel. She was then in her early sixties and remained there until her death in 1955. Her remains lie in an unmarked and untended plot in Hove Cemetery, together with those of her cousin.
Harrison's enduring legacy of beauty remains in her portfolio of works, including some early images that stand alongside those of the very best illustrators Britain has ever produced. I am pleased to have been able to discover her true identity and hope that my efforts will in some small way compensate for her relative anonymity in the 60 years since her passing. May she now take her rightful place alongside the other better-known illustrators of the early 20th century.
I shall be pleased to hear from others who may wish to join me in expanding our mutual knowledge and to thus continue to develop a comprehensive library of her works.
Breaking News: My further recent research has clarified some of the previous uncertainties concerning her time in Belgium and where she continued her artistic training in London from 1922 onwards.
Mary Rosalind Jacobs