Kate Seston Matthews
She was a pioneer in photography when women were a rarity in the profession. And, although she never set out to make a living taking pictures, her passion took her work places she never would have dreamed. “She” was Kate Matthews, and this is her story.
Kate Seston Matthews was born in New Albany, Indiana in 1870. One of eight children, her parents moved their family to Peewee Valley, Kentucky, near Louisville, in the late 1880s. Their 14-room estate was called Clovercroft, and Kate lived out her life there.
Kate Matthews was introduced to photography by her brother-in-law when she was 16 but she was largely self-taught. Her father purchased her first camera shortly thereafter – a camera she used for the next 70 years.
Kate Matthews’ photographs appeared in ads and publications including Cosmopolitan, Vogue, The Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.
Yet, Miss Matthews is perhaps best known for photographing the real-life counterparts for characters in the famous "The Little Colonel" book series. Kate herself served as inspiration for the character “Miss Katherine Marks".
The citizens, lifestyle and landscape of her beloved Pewee Valley were Kate’s favorite subjects. She featured them on her personal Christmas cards and even created collectible “Little Colonel” postcards as church fundraisers. Kate Matthews died in 1956.
Fire destroyed Clovercroft shortly after her death, sending her papers and much of her work up in flames.
However, the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives has worked to collect and catalog as much of her remaining work as possible. This Et Cetera presents just a sampling of their digital collection, which consists of more than 400 items - the largest repository of her work.
Ironically, Kate was a success despite permanent vision damage she contracted through whooping cough in infancy. Her work can be found in prestigious museums across the country.
- LittleColonel.com states that, in the early days, Kate used a cart and pony to get her and her equipment around Pewee Valley.
- In 1895 Kate Matthews and local sculptor Enid Yandell were both featured in a Southern Magazine article celebrating young women artists.
- According to a 1974 address (for the Oldham County Historical Society) by niece Lillian Fletcher Brackett, Kate Matthews’ studio was located on the third floor of Clovercroft.
- Lillian Fletcher Brackett also said that Kate’s older brother, Gustavus, was a writer and editor of the Courier-Journal. Brackett's own husband, Charles Brackett, was a Hollywood producer. Celebrity seems to have run in the family!
- Late in life, Miss Matthew began to paint in oils.
- Most of Matthews’ photographs do not have titles.
- Kate Matthews is represented in the permanent collections of the High Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Art, among others.
- Much more on Kate Matthews and the Little Colonel Stories can be found at Little Colonel.com.
Our thanks to the University of Louisville Archives and Photographic Archives (ULPA) for the use of their images.
Similar "Louisville Life" stories:
- Program 510
- In this "Louisville Life", it's a howling good time with DJ Coyote Calhoun, we take a look around the unique Liberty Tattoo & Art Parlor and visit the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center. Dr. Blaine Hudson, dean of the University of Louisville's College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Pan-African Studies is our in-studio guest. Plus, see what develops in Et Cetera, when we profile famed photographer Kate Seston Matthews. (#510)