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James Harris works featured in new exhibit at Confederation Centre Art Gallery

October 19, 2011

Works of the Heart: The Architectural Legacy of James Harris in PEI is a look at the career of P.E.I. architect James Harris (1886-1954). Harris's uncles were noted painter Robert Harris and Victorian architect William Critchlow Harris-both of whom inspired James' interest in architecture and art.

James apprenticed with W. C. Harris' architectural firm in Halifax before attending McGill University. Upon graduating in 1912, James returned to Halifax. He enlisted in the First World War in 1917. In his sketchbooks, James created many quick drawings and watercolours of his observations of the war in Europe. His depictions of the daily lives of soldiers and war ravaged buildings in the French countryside are still poignant today.

On his return to Canada he established an architectural office in Charlottetown in the DesBrisay Block on the corner of Grafton and Queen Streets (a building designed by his uncle in 1901.) In the 1920s James completed churches in Alberton, Rollo Bay, and Dunstaffnage. Black and white photographs of the structures, taken by James and pasted into albums, document his projects and show a restrained style. During the Great Depression, he was commissioned to design churches in the communities of St. Margarets, Corran Ban, and Kensington.

Commercial buildings added to his growing portfolio. In Charlottetown, the Tweel Building, the Block Building, the Hardy Building, and the Moore and McLeod's Building, all contributed to a changing streetscape. In Montague, he designed the Clark Brothers Store and a home for businessman Keir Clark. The new fire hall at the bridge was another of his projects.

In 1930, construction of his design for the Harris Memorial Library was completed. This was personally significant to James, since the building included an upstairs gallery to display the art of his late uncle, Robert Harris. The building was removed in 1962 to make way for the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

James has been said to defy being labelled with any particular style and his body of work shows that he experimented with many.

James Harris' sketchbooks also reveal an appreciation for architecture generally. He documented special places or buildings he admired. His 1930 sketch of what would become the iconic "Green Gables House" predates the opening of the PEI National Park in 1937. And while not a portrait artist, he did share his uncle Robert's penchant for seeing the whimsical in humanity as seen in his sketch of a pre-historic beach scene at Holland Cove, complete with dinosaur-like creatures chasing swimmers.

Gallery Director Kevin Rice stated, "James Harris' legacy in PEI may be dwindling as buildings disappear, but the collection of his sketchbooks, and photograph albums featured in this exhibition (deposited with the gallery by his daughter, Mary Beth Harris) document his life-long interest in drawing, and provide details of an architectural practice ranging from residential projects of various scales, to business blocks, to church building that contribute an early 20th century sensibility to our built environment."

Works of the Heart: the Architectural Legacy of James Harris on P.E.I., guest curated by Darin MacKinnon, will be on display until January 22.

Image: Moore & McLeod Building, Queen Street, Charlottetown, 1937