When she died in 1893, aged 31, Eleanor Catherine Mair, better known as Kate Sperrey, was acclaimed as 'one of the best portrait painters New Zealand has produced.' That she has since been virtually forgotten says less about her abilities than it does about the selective focus of New Zealand art history. She was born Eleanor Catherine Sperrey on 7 January 1862, at Geelong, Victoria, Australia, the daughter of John Sperrey, a timber merchant, and his second wife, Eleanor Maunder. About 1863 the family arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand, where John Sperrey worked as a clerk to the sub-treasurer. Kate's mother died there in 1865.
Kate Sperrey attended Otago Girls' High School from 1873, where she was taught art by David Con Hutton. Hutton was also the principal of the Otago School of Art, where Sperrey may have studied. About 1881–82 she left New Zealand to study portraiture in Rome under Giuseppe Ferrari, an early modern portrait painter, as well as in Paris and London.
In 1884 Kate Sperrey returned to New Zealand to live with her father in Wellington, and established herself there as a professional portraitist. By 1886 she had a studio in Lambton Quay. She appears to have been an official portraitist for several years. She painted many prominent political figures, including George Grey, Harry Atkinson and John Ballance. She also painted many portraits of Maori, her subjects including Wairingiringi of Ngati Mahuta and her husband, Te Wahanui of Ngati Maniapoto. From 1885 to 1887 Sperrey belonged to the Auckland-based New Zealand Art Students' Association, whose purpose was to encourage the painting of uniquely New Zealand subjects. Her Maori portraits, especially those of women and children from Rotorua and the King Country, were highly praised. Critics admired her skill at life drawing, her fresh and bold modern painting technique, and her ability to capture the colour of Maori skin. A number of her paintings were reputedly destroyed in a fire, which would help to account for their scarcity today.
On 19 September 1888 Kate Sperrey married Captain Gilbert Mair at the Congregational Church in Bowen Street, Wellington. The couple had probably first met when she painted his portrait after he was awarded the New Zealand Cross in 1886. After their marriage they lived near Foxton, where Gilbert farmed. Their first child, John Gilbert, was born on 5 July 1889 at Wellington. Their daughter, Kathleen Irene (Airini), born at Wainuiomata on 22 January 1891, became known as an artist under her married name, Vane.
Kate Sperrey exhibited her work with the art societies in the four main centres and at exhibitions in New Zealand and Australia. After her marriage she signed her paintings E. K. Mair. A self-portrait drawn in 1887 (held by the Alexander Turnbull Library) shows her to be a slim woman with dark curly hair. She was described as intelligent, well travelled and a good conversationalist. However, she was often ill, and died on 23 April 1893 aged 31 at Wairau Hospital, Blenheim, where she had travelled for an operation. She was buried beside her father in Bolton Street cemetery, Wellington.
Jane Vial. 'Sperrey, Eleanor Catherine', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012
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