While the late Pre-Raphaelite illustrations of Florence Harrison have always stood out from those of her contemporaries, too little has been known of her life, and much of that inaccurate. In the light of new research, which has been aided by members of her family, it is now possible to present an improved biography of the artist.
Florence Harrison was born on board the Windsor Castle, a ship bound from London to Brisbane, Australia, on 2 November 1877. She was the second daughter of Norwood Harrison, the ship’s captain, and his wife, Lucy. Though her father retired from active duties in 1882, Florence seems to have had a fairly peripatetic childhood. According to the official censuses: in 1881, she was staying at Rockhill House, Folkestone, Kent, a girls’ school run by Elizabeth Harrison, her maiden great-aunt; while, in 1901, she and her family – including two younger brothers – were living at 29 Colworth Road, Leyton, Essex. For at least two periods – 1908 to 1914 and 1918 to 1920 – she was based in Bruges, Belgium, a city that inspired many of her townscapes. There she met her close friend, the Irish writer, Enid Maud Dinnis, and followed her by converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism.
In 1905, Harrison began to work as an illustrator of her own poetry for children. The books were issued by Blackie, her chief publisher throughout her career. At this stage her illustrations combined Pre-Raphaelite influences with the practices of fin-de-siècle poster artists, and may be compared to those of such contemporary women illustrators as Jessie M King and Anne Anderson. At best, the color plates have the luminosity and strong outlines of stained glass, while the line drawings have a decorative efflorescence.
In 1910, Harrison began to publish her illustrations to Romantic literary texts, including poetry by Christina Rossetti, Lord Tennyson and William Morris. Yet, at the same time, she contributed to popular annuals, appearing alongside Anne Anderson, Honor Appleton, Agnes Richardson, among many others. A turn to more overtly fantastic imagery was signaled by the appearance of her Elfin Song in 1912.
Continuing to publish until the early 1940s, Harrison moved from London to Hove, Sussex, during the Blitz, and became companion and carer to her cousin, Mary Isobel Harrison. Following Mary’s death in 1943, Florence lived on in the rented flat until her death in 1955.