Biography

“Painting was her refuge, her passion, her reason - her intelligence”

- Boris Kalachnikoff correspondence with B. de Lange, 7 May 1985

Flora Scales was born in Wellington, New Zealand on the 24 May, 1887. She was the second-born, eldest daughter in a family of five children. Her two younger brothers died in WW1 and her elder brother remained in England after the war.

-066-img-BC035.--Sunday-in-Regent's-Park,.jpg

Sunday in Regent’s Park, London [BC035]
1960
oil on canvas
210 x 270mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland, New Zealand

“Painting was her refuge, her passion, her reason - her intelligence”1


Flora Scales was born in Wellington, New Zealand on the 24 May, 1887. She was the second-born, eldest daughter in a family of five children. Her two younger brothers died in WW1 and her elder brother remained in England after the war.

Flora Scales, ‘Lass’ or ‘Lassie’ as she was called by the family, was brought up with the best of everything lavished upon her: a progressive education, a place in the society of the most influential families in Wellington and, always, a ready recognition of her precocious artistic talent which was then focused on drawing and painting the animals she loved so intensely. She was sent to London in 1908, at the age of 21, to study at the ultra-conservative W. Frank Calderon School of Animal Painting for three years, which, by stint of winning a “studentship” she turned into four. The students attended life, portrait and composition classes as well as indoor and outdoor sessions with the animals and in the summer there were highly organised classes in the Norfolk countryside. Apparently Scales was the only New Zealand artist to enrol at Calderon’s school and for her it was a richly rewarding experience. The technical knowledge and the accuracy of observation and draughtmanship instilled in the academic tradition, provided the strong foundation on which her future development was based.

These were years of turbulence in the English art world largely due to Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 at the Grafton Galleries in London, England. It would be interesting to know if Calderon, like Professor Henry Tonks at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, discouraged his students from viewing these exhibitions which some, in tune with Virginia Woolf, felt had irrevocably changed the British art world. Unfortunately no such details are available to date.

In 1912 Scales returned to “Kuhawai”, the family home in Lower Hutt, to a life at once that of a young socialite and that of a hard working artist, a keen contributor to the New Zealand art world. Between 1912 and 1919 Scales entered twenty seven exhibitions, usually sending several well received works to each.

In 1920, when her then 62-year-old father, the wealthy and powerful George Herbert Scales, upped sticks to marry his 29-year-old secretary, the privileged life of his wife and two daughters collapsed in tatters around them. Her father wanted her to make something of herself, but with the carpet pulled from under their feet by his desertion, the three women, along with Scales’s young niece, Patience, too humiliated to remain in Wellington, moved to Nelson to begin a new life, one in which Scales’s art was to take a back seat to the business of survival.

She and her sister, Marjorie, attempted to grow strawberries and apples and found temporary employment as household servants and in a local canning factory. Scales struggled to accept this fate and somehow, despite the obstacles, found the time and energy to keep on painting. But, Patience observed “she was a complete Loner and I don’t think ever enjoyed our family life together and probably longed to return to England and painting full time.”2 She was a misfit, all the while dreaming of another life in another place.


Then, in 1928, her dreams came true and Scales, leaving her family behind, boarded the great ship SS Ruahine bound for London. Oh! the elation and relief as the linking streamers broke and the Ruahine steamed out through the heads of Wellington Harbour. The independence she longed for was hers at last. Ahead lay six weeks at sea, ahead lay England and France, and memories of life as an unmarried drudge receded with the wake. She was no longer the family’s dutiful ‘Lassie’, she was Helen Flora Victoria Scales and she was free.

Scales arrived in Paris in the spring of 1928 buoyed by a renewed zest for life and a future full of possibilities. In the first heady days of exploration in the Latin Quarter she met the four-year-old Bobby (Boris Kalachnikoff) playing on the boulevard de Port-Royal who took her home to meet his family. The singular but wonderful friendship that flourished between the Russian emigré family and the idealistic artist from so far away, who became part of their family and their youngest son’s godmother, joyfully rounded out what was otherwise an austere and ascetic life.

Paris itself was bursting with art and artists of all descriptions. Old art was being unwrapped in the museums as fast as new was being made. Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary theories erupted from cafes and salons, and art schools teemed with students from many nations around the world.

Scales quietly assessed the scene and judiciously sampled the Parisian academies including the famous Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Académie Colarossi. In the summer holidays she added the intoxication of the South of France and its ancient Mediterranean culture to the mix. But Flora Scales was searching for more than she could find as a student in France. At forty-four years of age she felt she could no longer waste time on “old fashioned schools you could find in your own backyard.”3

She wanted intellectual challenges and to be given direction. She wanted to be committed, absorbed; to be taken up by something rigorous and meaty to which she could devote her life.

To this end, she travelled to Munich in the winter of 1932 to take advantage of the cutting-edge Modernism and enlightened teaching at the Hans Hofmann Schule für Bildende Kunst. And she was just in time. Munich was cold and menacing - she saw the Sturmabteilung, the ‘Brown Shirts’, marching. Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), under threat from the Nazi regime due to his so-called decadent art practice had already fled to begin his teaching career in America leaving artist and teacher Edmund Kinzinger (1888-1963) to relay his principles to the last remaining students at the school. Three months after Scales finished her term, the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture), under Joseph Goebbels, effectively brought to an end the avant-garde which had distinguished German art since the early 1900s. But Scales's daring adventure at the Hofmann School paid off. A seismic shift in her approach to painting came with the realisation that she must abandon traditional systems of perspective; that she was instead to construct space with colour, shifting planes, and geometric shapes. She was to create a space that referred only to the flat surface of the work, the picture plane. In essence, she realised the subject of a painting was merely the pretext for the painting. Scales said, “I try to forget the subject and think only of the painting.”4

She and fellow New Zealander Gwen Knight (1908-1974) were the only two Antipodean artists to study at the Hans Hofmann School of Art. For some time Scales was mainly known in New Zealand for her conduit-like influence on the then twenty-four-year-old artist Mountford Tosswill Woollaston (1910-1998) and, indirectly on the fifteen-year-old Colin McCahon (1919-1987), having shared the concepts discussed at the Hofmann School - the key elements of early 20th-century European modernist theory - by way of verbal and written notes.


Much has been made of Scales’s influence on Woollaston, specifically over the course of a few brief meetings when she was in New Zealand in 1934. Woollaston, who by his own admission did not have the adventurous spirit required to step beyond New Zealand’s shores5, was as hungry as Scales had been for a more purposeful direction to follow. He sponged up Scales’s summaries of Kinzinger’s instructions, admired her dedication, and helped promote her work in local exhibitions. Perhaps becoming wary of his motives, Scales abruptly stopped their visits, and they did not meet again. Scales returned to Paris in 1935.

In around 1936, at the Académie Ranson in Paris, Scales met the unorthodox Professor Roger Bissière (1886-1964). Bissière admitted to finding the idea of art as something that could be taught quite incongruous. His notes to students contained practical solutions to problems of method, all the while warning them that this practicality was only part of the whole; that they must in the end rely on themselves, on their own sensibility and heart, at which stage they would no longer need his help. Scales now had the knowledge she needed to fly alone.

Later, reflecting on her teachers from this period, Scales remarked, “I took advantage of their brains pushing me on. I made use of them as a step up the ladder. The main thing is to forget you’ve been influenced. I didn’t want to be like anybody. I wanted to be a little uncommon, unusual.”6

At the Académie Ranson, Bissière also advised his students to learn and improve with each effort rather than to aim for a ‘reussi’ or a finished and ‘successful’ outcome that might please a potential buyer. Deeply influenced by this notion, for the next forty-one years, between 1934-1975, Scales did not exhibit or sell her work. The commercial art world was not one inhabited by her teachers - Hofmann, Kinzinger or Bissiѐre - whose concerns lay solely with the authenticity of expression and the autonomous nature of the process of painting, to which they gave spiritual and ethical properties.

She lived frugally on the money allowed her, devoting her attention and energy to her work without the distractions of competition or self-promotion. Scales explained, “I wanted to conduct an uninterrupted search for improvement in my work. You have to create and develop every day. In the learning of three things you may suddenly find a fourth.”7

The 1940s were the dark flip-side to this epoch of growth and happiness. Scales was stretched to breaking point by her arrest as a British citizen and two years of internment in Frontstalag 142 (a WWII camp in the Vosges Mountains, France). Two years of freezing deprivation in Paris followed her release and then came the ultimate blow, the discovery that her stored artworks had been plundered from Paris by the Nazi art raiders in the early years of the war. Hundreds of her works were lost including large numbers of nude studies. Notwithstanding this appalling chain of events, once repatriated to England in 1945, Scales was charged by her family with the care of her frail 85-year-old mother until her death in England in 1948. Scales was in no fit state to manage the situation and there was a falling-out between the sisters over this difficult episode. Consequently, her long-time friends, the Kalachnikoff family - Boris, his wife Christiane and his mother - became Scales’s family and their home in Bry-sur-Marne was to be her base in France for the next 20 years.

It is of note that after 1928, when Scales left for England, she did not ever have a home of her own. She was itinerant, dependant on friends and rental arrangements for a roof over her head. The practical demands of her lifestyle seem, in part at least, to have influenced the size of her work which was always small to be transportable, orderly and manageable en plein air. Such practicalities may also have influenced her choice of diluted, thinly applied paint, considering the long drying time of impastoed oils. Being able to paint was always at the fore, and dictated all that she did.


As proof of her belief that “You must hold on and hang on absolutely”8, that one must push on despite overwhelming setbacks, Scales began work again in the late 1940s. In the paintings of this era, the 1950s and 1960s, the cubistic faceted planes of her earlier European studies morph into hazy, other-worldly compositions where layers of colour placed with brush-strokes of the utmost delicacy and deliberation move towards a greater degree of abstraction from the subject. These paintings can be seen as a statement of her resilience and hard-won artistic independence.

In 1972 Scales again travelled to New Zealand and eventually some signs of recognition of her work were made when Colin McCahon curated her first exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery over the summer of 1975-1976. Gretchen Albrecht (1943-), the noted New Zealand artist who befriended her, encouraged fellow artists to buy her work. Thus funded, Scales made her last trip to France in 1977, but, alarmed by the state of her health, returned in 1978 to make New Zealand home for the rest of her life. The loss of her European lifestyle, the loss of the support and love unfailingly supplied by Boris and Christiane, and an almost chronic state of ill health made life in New Zealand often sad and difficult, and took its toll on her ability to work. It was Albrecht who bolstered her up and fanned the sparks of Scales’s art practice with books, postcards and shared experiences so she could continue to paint.

The last series of portraits Scales painted in the Masonic Retirement Village, Rotorua, between 1981 and 1983, are the culmination of years of intensive work and study. They speak of dignity and courage and of her indefatigable will to work until her death in 1985.

A precious, small proportion of Scales’s work remains to bear witness to her vocation. These, and her example of a life lived for and sustained by art, as one for whom fame and wealth were irrelevant, are her powerful and enduring legacy.

- B de Lange, 2021

  1. Boris Kalachnikoff correspondence with B de Lange, 7 May 1985

  2. Patience Tennent correspondence with B de Lange, 13 March 1993

  3. The Notebooks of Marjorie de Lange recording conversations with Flora Scales, 1982-1983

  4. ibid. 

  5. Woollaston, M.T., The Far-Away Hills: A meditation on New Zealand landscape, Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland Gallery Associates, 1962, pg 36

  6. The Notebooks of Marjorie de Lange recording conversations with Flora Scales, 1982-1983

  7. ibid.

  8. ibid.