Page 1: Biography
Jeffreys, Ellen Penelope
This biography, written by Rosemary Entwisle, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Ellen Valpy was born in Hummeripore (Hamirpur), India, on 12 February 1827, the second daughter of William Henry Valpy and his wife, Caroline Jeffreys. Ellen came from a talented family: there is evidence that her mother and her sisters Juliet and Catherine were accomplished artists, but Ellen seems to have been especially gifted. After her father's retirement from the East India Company she spent a year with her family travelling through Europe, receiving tuition from an Italian governess and drawing master. The influence of this early training is apparent in her later works.
In January 1849 the Valpys, with five of their six children, arrived on the Ajax in Otago, New Zealand. Valpy, with an income reckoned at £1,200 a year, was the richest man in the settlement. Mrs Valpy selected their suburban lot at the foot of the Caversham hill and a house named The Forbury was built there. It was at The Forbury on 15 January 1852 that Ellen Valpy married her eldest cousin, Henry Jeffreys. Henry, as a member of the small Church of England community, was quickly enlisted by A. R. C. Strode, the resident magistrate, as a juror, a justice of the peace, and chairman of a committee designed to oppose Captain William Cargill's grip on the press.
Henry Jeffreys had property in New South Wales to which he decided to return after the death of Judge Valpy in September 1852. At this time Ellen Jeffreys was expecting their first child. A daughter, Caroline Emma, was born in January 1853, baptised in February and in March the Jeffreys family and a servant sailed for Sydney. Ellen and Henry stayed in Australia until 1860. In the interim several of their children were born and died. When Ellen returned to The Forbury in June 1860, she was accompanied by only one son, Henry Arthur. The following January another son, Edmond Francis, was born in Oamaru.
In 1863 Ellen Jeffreys was widowed. She continued to live in Oamaru near her mother and some sisters until 1873. In that year her son Henry was admitted to the Dunedin Lunatic Asylum suffering from a religious mania. Ellen Jeffreys moved with Edmond to Dunedin where Henry, a day patient, was able to visit his mother until his discharge from hospital in 1876. After Edmond died in 1887, Ellen Jeffreys's sole source of income was property to the value of £360 in Oamaru. To supplement her income she rented a studio in which to paint, intending to take pupils. Courage to advertise classes seems to have failed her and her only sales were to members of her and her sisters' families.
Ellen Jeffreys never joined the Otago Art Society or exhibited with it even though she was acquainted with its founder, William Mathew Hodgkins, and was friendly with many members. Her paintings survive in the Otago Early Settlers Museum and the Hocken Library. While she attempted oils of subjects such as Naples, most of her works are watercolours which depict local scenes: views of Dunedin from The Forbury, or houses in Caversham. Her paintings failed to capture a wide audience, her vision being of the ideal rather than the romantic. In the last decades of the nineteenth century fashionable artists strove to follow the example of William Turner. Those artists whose training was rooted in an earlier century were thought to be too natural and as a result their work was dismissed. It seems now that the paintings of Ellen Jeffreys have been undervalued; they are not merely of historical interest.
Ellen Jeffreys had evangelical beliefs which derived from her education and upbringing. She joined her sisters Arabella Valpy and Catherine Fulton in a variety of charitable schemes and movements including the Band of Hope Coffee Rooms, the Salvation Army and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. She died a Baptist at Mornington, on 8 September 1904.