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International Women’s Day: Kate Sheppard at Art School

Visual Arts
image Marie Beath

Before Kate Sheppard, became this country’s  leading suffrage campaigner, she was one of the first women students to enrol at the Canterbury College School of Art, Ōtautahi Christchurch when it opened in 1882.

Founded in 1873, Canterbury College School of Art, opened on March 1st, 1882, on the south corner of the campus – on Rolleston Avenue and Hereford Street.  The building, originally designed by Thomas Cane, had been the first home of  Christchurch Girls’ High.  However it was too small, and the girls’ school moved to Cranmer Square, freeing up space for the Canterbury College School of Art.

This second art school to be built in New Zealand was a state of art, colonial replica of the famed South Kensington Art School in London, England (later the Royal School of Art).  An ‘exceptionally well fitted South Kensington graduate and examiner of the art and science department’ David Blair was brought out to head the school. His vision was to include traditional and modern training of practical arts.  Blair brought with him, a South Kensington trained teacher- twenty-two-year-old George Elliot.

The Lyttelton Times reported in 1882, that the new art school, “will thus be seen that the of Canterbury College have secured the services of a gentleman who thoroughly understands what the requirements of a School of Art are, and it only remains for the people of Christchurch and its suburbs to make the best use of the opportunities at length afforded them.”

The ground floor was re-purposed into the elementary department and headmaster’s room. The original interior was opened up to make a large studio. Large amounts light fell through the Gothic Revival windows to provide a natural illumination of the desks which all faced north.  Around the walls, there were large wooden cabinets for students work, equipment and the boards.  Large curtains had been installed to be pulled across to separate the women from the men during art classes.

Each student had a working desk with scales, frames to use when copying objects they drew as well as carved side rests for their drawing boards to be angled for working on. The large drawing boards also were blackened, for students take up a new method of drawing with chalk – something David Blair had seen in many of the European art schools.

Blair’s vision was for students to be provided systematic study of practical art including freehand drawing from practical geometry, linear perspective, model drawing and blackboard drawing from memory, light and shade, painting in oil and water colours, and from nature, botany and anatomy.  There were opportunities to further study to more scientific principles of art practise such in trade and manufacturing they could do so.

The new school ‘sought to make beauty a pre-requisite in the design and manufacture of the common objects of everyday life.’ (Ann Calhoun, Simplicity and Splendour, p.14).  This included design right through to modelling, building construction, machine construction, drawing on wood to applying for a Teachers’ Elementary Drawing Certificate.

In 1882, 33 year old, Kate Sheppard was married and a mother of an eighteen month old son. She enrolled in the elementary morning art classes with her sister, Marie Beath.  Most of the 28 students, were who had some training or previous study.

The students supplied their own drawing material and instruments as well as conducted themselves in a strict orderliness and quietness. Students requested to enter class and take their seat in their proper place with no talking or moving about.  Due to Victorian modesty, Kate and the other women were banned from attending life drawing classes whether the model was draped or undraped nude.

Although examples of Kate’s work do not exist, a copy of her sister’s, Marie Beath’s water colour from a plein air class in Hagley Park is still in possession of Margaret McBean, a descendant living in Melbourne.

One well known student studying in Kate’s class, was Margaret Stoddart.  At the end of 1882, The Lyttelton Times stated the work ‘Study of Ivy Leaves Drawn in Sepia from a Cast’ by M. Stoddart was ‘noteworthy’. (Lyttelton Times, 27 December 1882). In 1890, Stoddart completed her studies and was awarded the Second Grade Full Certificate.

In October 1885, three years after the school opened, the Star newspaper reported, headmaster Mr David Blair, was facing a charge of committing an indecent act in Hagley Park in the court.  Due to the witnesses being children as young as seven years of age the case was dismissed due to mistaken identity. (The Star, 14 October, 1885)

Three months later, a new art education book written by David Blair “Colonial Drawing Book“ was published by the authority of New Zealand’s Ministry of Education in Regulation XVIII in accordance with the order in council relating to the inspection of schools and the standards of education. However David Blair did not stay to see this happen –  he had left for Canada.

Changes to the way women were taught were slowly introduced.  The Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives in 1889 reported that the art school’s headmaster had developed ‘a class for the lady students for the study of the full figure was established last year, and so far, the attendance has justified it, though it is difficult to get satisfactory models.’

Authored by Property Lead, Helen Osborne

Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House

83 Clyde Road, Ilam, Christchurch



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