Anna Lois White was born in Auckland on 2 November 1903, the daughter of Annie Phillipps and her husband, Arthur Herbert White, an architect. Both the White and the Phillipps families had helped establish Methodism in New Zealand, and her mother was a leading member of the Mount Albert Methodist Church in Auckland. Throughout her life Lois struggled to reconcile two sides of her personality: the God-fearing dutiful daughter and the creative artist.
She grew up in a financially comfortable middle-class family, and was encouraged in her artistic and intellectual pursuits by her father. From 1919 to 1922 she was a pupil at Epsom Girls' Grammar School, where she excelled academically and artistically and was known for her soprano voice and her strength as a champion swimmer. Dreamy and rather shy, she was also considered slightly school-marmish and socially aloof by her classmates.
In 1920 her father died and the family became dependent on relatives for financial assistance. Annie White also had shares in her father's business, Phillipps and Impey Limited, the oil and colour merchants in Queen Street. On leaving school Lois managed to thwart her mother's plan to get her an apprenticeship in the advertising section of a department store, and held out for a training in fine arts. From 1923 to 1927 she was enrolled as a student at Elam School of Art. Her years there were – as at school – characterised by a tendency to become friendly with her teachers rather than with other students. One teacher, Ida Eise, became a lifelong friend.
Lois remembered her first year at Elam, when it was under the directorship of Edward Payton, as akin to being at primary school. The arrival in 1924 of A. J. C. Fisher, as the new director, was a revelation. A young man in his late 20s, and a graduate from the Royal College of Art, London, Fisher brought with him an innovative and enthusiastic approach to life drawing and a curriculum that focused on figure composition and narrative, particularly contemporary social comment. He recognised Lois White's ability and when she finished her course he employed her as a part-time tutor at Elam from 1928 to 1934. She taught figure composition there as well as at Takapuna Grammar School. In 1935 she was made a full-time tutor at Elam, and held the position until she resigned in January 1963. She never married and for many years lived with her mother and sister, Gwen. She was the main income earner, and after their mother's death she and Gwen continued to live together.
During the 1930s and early 1940s Lois White was considered a mainstream Auckland artist with a significant national profile. Many of her figurative compositions were reproduced in local newspapers and the topical allegory of her work was commented on in reviews. Her most controversial painting, 'War makers' (1937), is a much-reproduced example of the anti-war commentary she concentrated on during these years. By the late 1930s the war series were interspersed with religious and female allegories, portraiture and mural commissions. The female allegories, modelled on friends and students in symbolic guise, were a consistent attempt to articulate a celebratory approach to female-centred sexuality. They were recognised at the time as lively and vigorous, but nonetheless decorative; their real importance within the body of her work did not fully emerge until her retrospective exhibition, organised by the Auckland City Art Gallery, in 1994.
The years from 1947 to 1951 marked White's major period of production. Her painting technique was highly refined and her palette took full advantage of the extended range of art materials available in the post-war years. It was also a time when her reputation in Auckland began to fade. Many of her most accomplished paintings were painted and exhibited with the New Group, which she helped form in 1948. These Elam-trained artists were interested in figuration and thorough draughtsmanship, and their work was regarded as a conservative reaction to that of younger artists who were discovering modernism and developing semi-abstract and abstract art.
Colin McCahon, keeper of the Auckland City Art Gallery collection from 1954 to 1964, curated a number of contemporary painting exhibitions, but White's interest in symbolism and her mannered style of representation guaranteed her exclusion from these exhibitions. Without the support of an appreciative audience she became disconsolate and her production declined significantly. Working on at Elam, despite feeling embattled, she was one of the last of the old guard of Fisher's regime to retire from the school. Two years before her retirement, she and Ida Eise spent a year in Europe, visiting numerous galleries and churches.
In 1975 the Wellington dealer Peter McLeavey called at the Blockhouse Bay house White shared with her sister. He was greeted by an artist who thought of herself as 'old fashioned'. Many of her early compositions were stacked in her studio and garage. In 1977 McLeavey organised White's first solo exhibition and brought her work to the attention of the galleries and collectors. She was 74 years old.
Lois White died in Auckland on 13 September 1984. Her position and individuality in New Zealand art had been obscured by critics linking her work with that of A. J. C. Fisher, and their insistence on viewing her painting within the criteria of modernism. However, her contribution has been reappraised through the 1977 and 1994 exhibitions, the latter revealing the full range of her art. The main public holdings of her work are at the Auckland Art Gallery and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.