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Anna Lois White was born in Mount Albert, Auckland on 2 November 1903, the youngest of four children. Her father was an architect and both parents were devout Methodists. While her family and close friends called her 'Anna', she always signed her works 'A. Lois White', and was known in the art world as Lois (pronounced 'Loyce').
An outstanding scholar, singer, swimmer and artist at secondary school, White enrolled at Elam School of Art in 1923. Most of her years there were under the direction of A.J.C. (Archie) Fisher, who early on recognised her talent and fostered it. After graduating in 1927, White obtained part-time teaching positions at Elam and Takapuna Grammar School, and in 1934 she began working at Elam full-time. She occupied a number of positions at the University until her retirement in 1963.
Regarded by many during the 1950s and 60s as little more than a fashionable political commentator of the 1930s who failed to live up to her early promise, White's work was rediscovered in the 1970s, and she is now recognised as one of New Zealand's most distinctive and individual artists of the 20th Century.
Early works such as 'Funeral march' (1936) and 'War makers' (1937) secured White's reputation as a political commentator, although they were often compared unfavourably with official war painting. Alongside these political compositions however, White was also painting works about female sexuality, with an emphasis on decorative stylisation, and in the late 1940s and 1950s, she began to concentrate exclusively on female allegory. However, her devotion to narrative placed her in opposition to New Zealand's dominant tradition of landscape painting, as well as to contemporary modernist schools of abstraction.
Lois White was gradually alienated from her peers, and her themes - religious, political, sexual - were often lost on contemporary audiences. She was marginalised by the art world and took early retirement from her lecturer's position at Elam when criticism from both students and younger staff with new ideas became unbearable. It was not until one or two of her early works appeared in books and retrospective exhibitions in the 1970s that her importance as a New Zealand artist was finally recognised. While the majority of her works are in oil, she also produced a large number of drawings, and, when there was a shortage of materials during the War, developed a new medium in varnished watercolour.
In October 1977, at the age of 74, White had her first solo exhibition with Wellington art dealer Peter McLeavey. Interest in her work continued until after her death in 1984, culminating in the Auckland City Art Gallery's major retrospective exhibition 'By the Waters of Babylon' in 1994.
Text based on 'By the Waters of Babylon - The Art of A. Lois White' by Nicola Green, published in 1993 by Auckland City Art Gallery in association with David Bateman Ltd, Auckland.
Illustrations from 'By the Waters of Babylon - The Art of A. Lois White' by Nicola Green, published in 1993 by Auckland City Art Gallery in association with David Bateman Ltd, Auckland.