First in a series of English on the Riviera, a look at James Charles Harris, British Consul, watercolourist and humanitarian.
Sir James Charles Harris with wife Geraldine outside their villa in Mont Boron, Nice. (Photo: Didier Gayraud)One of the most interesting British characters eminent in 19th century Riviera society was undoubtedly Sir James Charles Harris. Born in 1831 in Genoa, he was a descendant of two resident British families: Bird and Brame. Truly a European, speaking fluent Italian, English, French, Latin and good German, Harris received a classical education that included painting and was educated both in Britain and Italy.
Harris was a notable artist – mainly doing watercolours. Sadly, most of his works have since been disseminated all over the world or disappeared, like the album of watercolours of Nice he offered to Queen Victoria at the end of her stay in Nice. He was one of the founding members of the Society of Beaux Arts of Nice and had exhibited his work in the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He donated shortly before his death an album to Holy Trinity Church. However, the whereabouts of this remains a mystery; as it was neither sold at an auction for charity nor can it be located.
In 1884, Nice became the centre of inventions and technical novelties, during the Nice International Exhibition. In the Royal Collection of Art there is a copy of a sketch Harris made of the Exhibition Pavilion. He sent frequent letters about the Côte d’Azur to various British journals and magazines and waged a private war against The Standard, when it published false cholera reports about Nice.
Harris was named British Consul in 1884. He was a Churchwarden, and a polite gentleman, but he could also lose his composure. He sent a letter to the Prefecture in 1896, in reply to an official request to have a copy of the balance sheets of Holy Trinity, not only refusing to furnish the required documents, but making it clear, that since the British Church draws no subsidies, it is simply not the Prefecture’s business how they manage financially. The request was not repeated.
Consul Harris was President of several charitable Societies such as the SPA (Société Protectrice des Animaux) of which he was founding member and President, giving support to the idea of establishing public watering facilities for birds, dogs and donkeys. At the turn of the road, in front of the Chateau de l’Anglais on Mont Boron, we can still see the one financed by Queen Victoria, after Consul Harris mentioned the idea to her.
Pont Vieux, 1861, Private CollectionHarris was also an amateur Urban Planner: He didn’t hesitate to criticise, but also made concrete suggestions by publishing a booklet in French Decadence de Nice Comme Station D’hiver – Les Moyens de la Conjurer in which he complained about the elegant society moving to Cannes from Nice. He also complained about the sewers – this was a recurring hygienic problem before the 1890s. The original égouts in Nice was nothing more than a trench in the middle of the road and the fosse was a septic tank, emptied by the peasants who used the contents for fertiliser.
As well, he wrote a historical paper – Monaco: Pieces Historiques et Traites – about the sovereignty of the Monegasque Prince. His real hour of glory came with the successive visits of Queen Victoria from 1895 while he was Consul. In May 1896, when he worked tirelessly to make sure that the visit was perfect in every way, James Charles Harris was amongst the first to receive the Victorian Order, later becoming KCVO for his services.
Harris’s fundraising subscription in 1899, after the Toulon disaster, was very favourably received in French political circles and led later to the Entente Cordiale and more specifically to the Fêtes Franco-Anglaises of Nice (1912). Consul Harris was an essential precursor in the improving political relations and developing French-British cooperation that would stand the test of time during the First World War
In 1859 in Suttgart, Harris married Gerhardine von Gall. (She used the French version of her name in Nice: Geraldine.) The marriage was a success except for the tragedy of losing their two year-old boy Monty. Harris suffered from severe asthma, and he died in 1904, in his villa Les Roches on Mont Boron, aged seventy-three. He’s buried in the Caucade Cemetary in Nice.
This is an excerpt from Judit Kiraly’s yet unpublished book The English Church of a French Resort. In the current issue of Nice Historique (FNAC, Librairie Masséna) you can find two of Judit Kiraly’s recent articles on the Croix de Marbre suburb development and Holy Trinity Nice.