After the recent screening of the television series Genius which tells the story behind Pablo Picasso, one of the 20th century's most influential and celebrated artists, it was befitting to come across some paintings in the Whangarei Museum's collection, of our own internationally renowned artist.

Although not quite as famous as Picasso's artwork, the pieces held at the museum certainly have a unique and endearing quality about them that is reminiscent of Northland and recognised by many.

Some may identify the artist from the charter launch named after her, memorial awards honouring her name or her extreme generosity, but to most, she was recognised for her artistic ability.

Kitty Airini Vane, born Kathleen Irene Mair in 1891, was the daughter of Captain Gilbert Mair and his wife Eleanor Katherine (nee Sperrey), herself an accomplished painter.

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Painting by K Airini Vane donated by Mrs G Carruth, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North (1985.1712.1).
Painting by K Airini Vane donated by Mrs G Carruth, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North (1985.1712.1).

Kitty's mother died when she was 3 and she was brought up by a Scottish nurse. Mainly educated in Auckland, Kathleen attended Misses Bews' Ladies College in Mt Eden during the early 20th century where she displayed a proficiency for both music and drawing.

Showing an early artistic aptitude, Kitty studied art under landscape painter Kenneth Watkins in Auckland, where it is likely she developed a similar passion for capturing the landscape in paint. By 1912, at 21, she departed Wellington on board the Remuera destined for London where she furthered her art career by studying at the Royal College of Art.

Becoming quite the socialite, Kitty attended functions like the Reception of New Zealanders at Westminster Palace Hotel, London to farewell Lord Liverpool, while on a separate occasion, Kathleen and Jane Mander (another Northland identity) both frequented social gatherings at the High Commissioner's Office in London within days of each other.

Painting by K Airini Vane donated by Mrs G Carruth, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North (1985.1712.1).
Painting by K Airini Vane donated by Mrs G Carruth, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North (1985.1712.1).

It appeared her enthusiasm for drawing and painting was insatiable, at one stage travelling to Hertfordshire with a companion to spend three months sketching at Bushey, enjoying the recreational aspect of her artwork.

As a young woman, the outbreak of war in 1914 saw her nursing in Malta, where she met her husband, the Hon Captain Ralph Vane, son of Lord and Lady Barnard of Raby Castle. They married in 1917 with the London tabloids reporting on the newsworthy occasion at length.

The couple travelled extensively while Kitty painted at every opportunity, exhibiting her works in London galleries and at the Academy in Paris.

Photograph of Kitty Airini Vane (nee Mair) in the Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North (1966.35.5).
Photograph of Kitty Airini Vane (nee Mair) in the Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North (1966.35.5).

After her husband's death in 1928, Vane continued to travel the world painting, returning to NZ with the onset of World War II. During these war years, she donated the sale proceeds from her artworks to charitable organisations, being an example of her generous spirit.

Always procuring the best possible paints and papers, Vane was a prolific painter and very successful artist, renowned for her watercolours and tempera landscape paintings personifying NZ, the Pacific and Europe.

She spent much of her retirement on the Tutukaka Matapouri coast and her great love of pohutukawa trees is encapsulated in her paintings held at Kiwi North.

K Airini Vane, as she signed her paintings, was a remarkable woman who painted what she liked, recognising what would appeal to a wide audience. Her works are testament to this, many being held in public and private collections worldwide where they continue to give pleasure en masse.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.