Annie Elizabeth Abbott was born at Knightstown, Christchurch, New Zealand, on 12 April 1877, the eldest of four children of Maud Laura Mason and her husband, Thomas George Abbott, a nurseryman. She was educated locally and, in 1891, while still at St Albans Main School, began attending Saturday classes at Canterbury College School of Art.
From 1894 until 1900 Elizabeth, as she was known, studied for student's and art teacher's certificates at the School of Art and received several scholarships and prizes. Like many of her contemporaries she was much influenced by the work and philosophy of Petrus van der Velden, who stressed the importance of drawing after nature, believing this to be the source of love, knowledge and understanding. However, she never became one of his pupils. At the conclusion of her studies Abbott joined the staff of the School of Art and held a position there from 1901 until the end of 1904. From early 1905 she taught privately at her studio in Hereford Street.
Between 1899 and 1902 Elizabeth Abbott participated in student competitions held by the Canterbury Society of Arts, winning two bronze and two silver medals for painting and modelling from life. In 1903 she was elected a working member of the society and was to exhibit almost every year until 1946. From 1937 until 1946 she was also to serve on its council.
For many years Elizabeth Abbott had a close friendship with fellow student artist Cecil Fletcher Kelly, and on 31 December 1908 they married at Christchurch. Throughout their married life they were inseparable, painting landscapes together at every opportunity. Favourite painting places were Kaikoura, Moana in Westland, Lyttelton Harbour and occasionally the southern lakes of Otago. They lived at the Hereford Street studio until 1912 then moved to Richmond Terrace, New Brighton. Although she often painted landscapes, Elizabeth Kelly continued to paint and exhibit figurative work and her reputation as a portraitist grew. In 1920 she received a commission from the New Zealand government to paint a portrait of Sergeant H. J. Nicholas, VC.
That same year Elizabeth and Cecil made a decision to travel. By early 1921 they were living in London, painting and visiting artists' studios and galleries. The summer months were spent in Cornwall. After an extended visit to Paris, where they also painted, they returned to London before making the sea voyage to New Zealand. They arrived back in Christchurch during January 1922 and within a few months moved to a rented flat in Montreal Street, which was to remain their home.
The experience of visiting Britain and Europe had broadened Elizabeth Kelly's approach to academic naturalism, and her 'interpretations', as she termed her portraits, became more lively in design and colour. During the 1920s she consolidated her reputation as a portraitist and became popular for her paintings of elegant, fashionable young women of Canterbury society. Although she had exhibited regularly at art society exhibitions throughout New Zealand since the early twentieth century, it was not until 1924, when one of her paintings was included in the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, that her work was seen overseas. In 1931 she began exhibiting in London at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and in Edinburgh at the Royal Scottish Academy. The following year she exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon of the Société des artistes français, receiving honourable mention for her portrait of Edith Bryant. A silver medal was awarded at the 1934 Salon for her portrait of Edith May. This was one of the highest official awards achieved by a New Zealand artist. By 1933 she was being described as 'New Zealand's foremost woman portrait painter'. Much of this acclaim can be attributed to overseas successes. Over the next few years she continued to exhibit in leading galleries.
Official recognition in New Zealand came in 1938 when she was appointed a CBE. Further recognition overseas came in 1940 with the purchase of her portrait of Professor James Park for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and in 1945 when her work was included in the British Art of Today exhibition. Elizabeth Kelly died at Christchurch on 4 October 1946, survived by her husband, Cecil. There were no children of the marriage.
Tall of stature, Kelly was of a dignified and sensitive character. As an artist she was extremely self-critical, maintaining the highest standards of professionalism, but she was generous in her help to young artists. Although well regarded as a landscape painter, her major contribution to New Zealand art lies in the way she revitalised formal portraiture in the 1920s and 1930s. A traditionalist, she followed closely the English school of portrait painting, which made her work readily acceptable both in New Zealand and overseas. Within her generation she gained more recognition abroad than any other New Zealand woman artist.