Elizabeth Kelly

8 December 1996 – 9 February 1997


Annie Elizabeth Kelly, née Abbott, died on 4 October 1946, aged 69 years. This small exhibition has been mounted not only to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of that event, but also to reflect on one of the most distinguished professional artists Canterbury has produced. In the years since her death Elizabeth Kelly's position in New Zealand art history has waned, and unfortunately she is no longer accorded the level of recognition she once enjoyed.

Her specialisation in portraiture, in some respects, worked against her as New Zealand has never had a strongly established portrait tradition. There was a great deal more interest in the landscape. Canterbury in particular has produced only a handful of artists ranking highly in portraiture. Apart from Elizabeth Kelly, the most notable of these are Raymond McIntyre, Archibald Nicoll, William A Sutton and Alan Pearson.

For many years Elizabeth Kelly struggled with the label 'portrait painter' as she was fully aware of what this meant for an artist in New Zealand. Whenever she was interviewed she maintained that, within her realm of what she termed 'interpretations', the landscape was of equal significance to portraiture in her work. She was right as the number of landscapes she painted equalled the number of her portraits. However, it was unquestioningly in portraiture that she found her métier that is why this exhibition is concerned solely with her representative works or portraiture spanning the period 1900-1943.

Elizabeth Kelly's interest in this genre developed during the years 1893-1901 when she was a free scholarship student at Canterbury College School of Art. Initially her ability in portraiture became apparent in three dimensional work and she was awarded two bronze medals from the Canterbury Society of Arts for her modelling. Her early portraiture in paint was mostly informal and possibly a no more dominant feature of her work than it was with a number of her contemporaries in the early 1900s. By 1908 however, her special ability as a portrait painter was beginning to be recognised.

Following her marriage to Cecil Kelly that same year, her individual strength as an artist became even more clearly defined. Cecil Kelly was best out in the landscape, and Elizabeth in the studio, but they worked together successfully in both situations which established a real artistic harmony between them.

Elizabeth Kelly's success as a portrait painter is in a sense, remarkable in that it occurred during her early years without the benefit of overseas experience. Their financial position did not enable the Kellys to travel, but when they were able to do so in their early forties, the benefits to them both were considerable.

In the 1920s and 1930s Elizabeth Kelly's work went from strength to strength, and by 1940 she had achieved recognition as a leading artist, not only in New Zealand, but also in Paris and London where, after 1931, she exhibited constantly.

Not only was she the only New Zealand artist to be awarded a silver medal by the Paris salon of the Sociètè des Artistes Francais in 1934, but also in 1938 she was the only woman artist to achieve official recognition by the award of a C.B.E. These were creditable awards for an artist who was in no way self promoting. Members of the Abbott family, and others who knew her, spoke of a natural, dignified and sensitive person who was always intensely self-critical of her work and never keen to push herself forward in the public eye.

In many respects her portraiture between the two wars coincided with a fashionable interest in this genre in Canterbry and elsewhere. But by the 1940s attitudes began to change and by the post war years, interest in non-official portraiture had begun to fade. This also accounts in part for the declining interest in Elizabeth Kelly's work in the decades following her death. She is, when considered within the generation, certainly deserving of more status than she now holds.

This exhibition which adds works from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Hocken Library, University of Otago, Otago Art Society and a number of private collections, to those held at the McDougall, will in some small measure reacquaint the public with the significance of Elizabeth Kelly as a Canterbury artist.

('Elizabeth Kelly Portraits', Bulletin, No.105, December 1996/January 1997, pp.1-2)

Exhibition number 617


Elizabeth Kelly Laura

Elizabeth Kelly (née Abbott) made this sculptural portrait bust while at the Canterbury College School of Art, where she studied from 1891–1901. She won regular prizes for her modelling from life, including at the 1906–07 Christchurch International Exhibition. Kelly later became one of New Zealand’s leading society portrait painters, in the 1930s showing her work in exhibitions in London, Edinburgh and Paris.

Laura was modelled on the artist’s younger sister, Laura Maude Cox (née Abbott, 1884–1957). One of the earliest sculptures in the collection by a New Zealand born artist, it is a recent gift to the city from Margaret Abbott, a great-niece of the two sisters.

(Treasury: A Generous Legacy, 18 December 2015 – 27 November 2016)

Elizabeth Kelly Youth

The subject of this portrait is Miss Roma Carey, the debutante daughter of a Christchurch City Councillor. She was reputed to be a lively young woman who was often in trouble with the traffic authorities for driving her father’s car too fast. Elizabeth Kelly has successful captured something of her exuberant spirit. Kelly established a successful career in Christchurch during the 1920s to the 1940s as a portrait painter, particularly of young women from prominent Christchurch families. Kelly (née Abbott) was born in Christchurch and studied at the Canterbury College School of Art. She won many awards in her career, including a silver medal from the Société des Artistes Français in 1934. She was the first New Zealand woman to receive the award. In 1908 Elizabeth married fellow Canterbury artist Cecil Kelly (1878 -1954). She exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, London. In 1938 Kelly was awarded a CBE.

Hon D G Sullivan, M.P.
Elizabeth Kelly Hon D G Sullivan, M.P.

Daniel Giles Sullivan (1882-1947) was a trade unionist and Labour politician. He was a Christchurch city councillor and Mayor of Christchurch from 1931 to 1936 and Member of Parliament for Avon from 1935 to 1944.

As Mayor he formally opened the Robert McDougall Art Gallery on 16 June 1932.

Harvesting, St. Ives
Elizabeth Kelly Harvesting, St. Ives

For the exhibition 'Nature's Own Voice' 6 February - August 2009 this work was displayed with the following label:

Elizabeth Kelly was a very successful portrait painter, completing many commissions from wealthy Christchurch residents. Less well known is her work as a landscape artist and her interest in painting outdoors. Kelly and her husband, fellow artist Cecil Kelly, spent the summer of 1921 when this work was completed based in Cornwall, England. This pastoral scene,with the loosely applied wet washes of colour used to render workers forming hay into stookes in full sunlight, highlights the sense of freedom that Kelly experienced when painting outdoors and contrasts vividly with the more restrained approachof her studio-based portrait painting.

Mrs Margaret Hight
Elizabeth Kelly Mrs Margaret Hight

Margaret Hight, née Green, (1892-1945) was the wife of academic, educational administrator and historian Professor James Hight (1870–1958).

Elizabeth Kelly Margaret

Born in Christchurch and trained at the Canterbury College School of Art from 1891–99, Elizabeth Kelly was the leading local portrait painter of her generation. She frequently exhibited her works overseas to considerable recognition and acclaim. In the 1930s her portraits won medals and awards at the Royal Academy in London and at the Paris Salon, and they were shown widely in England, Scotland, Paris and New York.

This portrait, one of Kelly’s typical 'society' portraits of fashionable young women, was shown in London in 1937 and 1939. The subject is Margaret Hatherley, who modelled several times for Kelly after being ‘spotted’ working in a Christchurch department store. Depicted with fishing tackle bag and rod, and with a tent as backdrop, this elegant young woman is presented here to suggest the pursuits of the English leisured classes.

In 1938 Kelly became the first New Zealand woman to receive the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) award for her services to art. Margaret is an excellent example of Kelly’s academic portrait style, and carries a sense of assurance and sophistication that is rarely seen in New Zealand portraiture.

Toi Toi Hinetauhara,(Rima Faith Fraer)
Elizabeth Kelly Toi Toi Hinetauhara,(Rima Faith Fraer)

Christchurch artist Elizabeth Kelly’s portrait of Rima Fraer was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1935. Given an elegant, invented title, it was shown as one of a pair – the other depicting a young woman of European descent – that together symbolised New Zealand’s bicultural heritage. The portrait was next shown in London in 1936, then for many decades from 1942 at the New Zealand embassy in Washington.

Born in around 1908, Rima Fraer was the daughter of Margaret Parata and Te Oti Kerei Taiaroa and granddaughter of Ngai Tahu leader Hori Kerei Taiaroa, but was given to the childless Revd Charles and Annie Fraer, of Tuahiwi near Kaiapoi. The couple founded Te Wai Pounamu College, a school for Maori girls, at Tuahiwi in 1909; the school later moved to Christchurch. Rima trained as a physiotherapist, and worked in Hamilton before marrying Sidney Thorne George, an Auckland stockbroker, in 1950. She died in Auckland in 1972.

Maori Girl
Elizabeth Kelly Maori Girl

Sketch for an oil painting pastel on linen

Cecil F. Kelly Portrait
Elizabeth Kelly Cecil F. Kelly Portrait

The subject of this portrait is of the painter's husband, Cecil Fletcher Kelly (1878-1954). Also an artist, he was an accomplished draughtsman who specialised in landscapes in oil.