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HARRIS, Martha Douglas

Victoria, British Columbia, 1854
Victoria, British Columbia, 1933
Biography synopsis
In addition to being a painter of still lifes and portraits, Martha Douglas Harris was also a collector of Aboriginal stories, particularly the legends of the Cowichan and Cree peoples. She published a compilation of twenty stories entitled “History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians” in 1901. Her interest in these stories stemmed from her mother, Lady Amelia Douglas’s, Cree background, a heritage that remained strictly private during her lifetime. In collaboration with her cousin, Edith Helmcken, Harris also illustrated a children's book. Daughter of James Douglas, the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, Harris was sent to England for schooling, where she studied drawing, elocution, French, composition and music. She also received drawing and needlework lessons at the Anglican Ladies Collegiate School (later known as Angela College) in Victoria. Active in the arts community, Harris studied painting with Georgina de L’Aubiniere in 1887, and was a frequent exhibitor with the Island Arts and Crafts Society, of which she was a founding member. Her artistic ambitions also extended into textiles: she formed the Lace Club of Victoria with her friend, Hilda Napier, in 1919 (members included Emily Carr and Hannah Maynard). In order to promote the use of British Columbian wool in spinning, she began to teach the art of weaving to others, and encouraged the production of spinning wheels in Victoria. She even learned how to colour local wool with native plant dyes. It was upon these foundations that the Women’s Institute Weavers Guild (later known as the Victoria Hand Weavers Guild) and the Island Weavers Plant were built. Finally, Harris also learned wood carving from George Selkirk Gibson, an artist from Edinburgh. Her extensive collection of Aboriginal basketry is now in the Royal British Columbia museum.
Media used
Wood carving
Lansdowne House, England, 1872 - 1874
Angela College, Victoria
Private study, 1887 (under Georgina de L'Aubiniere)
Island Arts and Crafts Society, 1909
Lace Club of Victoria, 1919
File & Archive locations
Canadian Women Artists History Initiative Documentation Centre, QC
City of Victoria Archives, BC
British Columbia Archives

Writings about
"Charles Lillard - Legacies - Chinook." Times-Colonist (Victoria) 23 Feb. 1997: 1
"Emily Carr Painting 'War Canoes' to be Auctioned in Vancouver." Canadian Press Newswire (Toronto) 5 May 2000
Adams, John. Old Square Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas. Victoria: Horsdal and Schubart, 2001
Canadian Press Newswire. "Carr Price Sets Record for Work by Canadian Woman." Canadian Press Newswire (Toronto) 14 May 2000
Currie, Christine D. "When the Flowers Talked." BC Historical News: Journal of the BC Historical Federation 35.4 (Fall 2002): 7-8
Finlay, K.A. and Shea, T.. "A Woman's Place" Art and the Role of Women in the Cultural Formation of Victoria B.C. 1850s-1920s Victoria, B.C.: Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery, University of Victoria, 2004
Iredale, Jennifer. "Helmcken House Website." http://bcheritage.ca/helmcken/people/dolly.html Digital Collections Team, Industry Canada, 1997
Lepine, Ayla. "The St. Ann's Academy Art Studio." BC Historical News: Journal of the BC Historical Federation 35.4 (Fall 2002): 15-17

Writings by
Harris, Martha Douglas. History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians. Victoria: The Colonist Printing and Publishing Company, 1901; Spokane: Marquette Books, 2004
Helmcken, Edith Louisa (Dolly) and Martha Douglas Harris. An Early Spring Morning Chat: When the Flowers Talked. Victoria: Helmcken, Edith Louisa, 1919

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