Essay by Gretchen Albrecht

‘A Personal Reminiscence’ by Gretchen Albrecht, first published in Art New Zealand, issue 37, 1985, pp 52-53




"My response to the poetic vision of these paintings was immediate and intense, and I left the Gallery driven by an urgent desire to meet and speak to the woman who had painted them."

"She was humble and unambitious for herself, but hungry for painting knowledge, mining a small personal seam in her painting that ended in her ninety-eighth year with a nugget of pure gold. I am the richer for having known and loved her."

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Left: Letter written to Gretchen Albrecht from Flora Scales, Rotorua Masonic Village, New Zealand, 14 January 1980, Signed Helen

Right: Letter written to Gretchen Albrecht from Flora Scales, Rotorua Masonic Village, New Zealand, undated, Signed Helen

Photo: Courtesy Linda Gill

I met Helen Scales first through her paintings which I came upon almost by chance while wandering through the Auckland City Art Gallery one afternoon at the end of 1975.

One of the galleries upstairs was filled with small oil paintings, mostly landscapes and still lives, and three self-portraits [Portrait 2 [BC065], Portrait 3 [BC066], Portrait 1 [BC120]]. One of those self-portraits [Portrait 3 [BC066]] stopped me in my tracks in its extraordinary emotional power. The head tilted on an angle, black smudges for eyes, a large triangular nose, mouth wiped away to a broken line - the skull beneath the flesh palpably felt – it seemed to me at once vulnerable and very strong: the brushstrokes in all their variety of smudges, the rubbed bare canvas patches, the licks, wisps and firm thick strokes of paint constructed an image redolent of a life lived – an image full of the presence of old age. It belonged, in my mind, with the great self-portrait of 1945 by Bonnard, and those direct, exposed self-revelations of late Rembrandt.

Also displayed along with the self-portraits was a group of Orchard with Plum Tree [BC071-BC075, BC077] paintings, exquisitely beautiful in their blushes and strokes of paint; edges dissolving and reassembling in planes of colour, and revealing an intelligent understanding of post-cubist ideas derived from Cézanne’s principles of organising pictorial space. My response to the poetic vision of these paintings was immediate and intense, and I left the Gallery driven by an urgent desire to meet and speak to the woman who had painted them.

A week or two later, with the help of Kim Wright, I found myself, heart pounding, knocking on the back door of a small flat in an old house in Mt Eden. The door eventually opened a crack and, unable to explain exactly why I was there, except that I had been deeply moved by her paintings, I was invited in by a tall, thin, elderly woman. She was 88 years old [1975].

Miss Scales was painting a still life of flowers and fruit [Still Life, Brentwood Avenue, Auckland [BC090]] which were arranged on a sideboard in the sparsely furnished sitting room, amongst propped-up postcards, small finished and unfinished paintings, and a treasured small square-shaped book written in French on Cézanne.

(Years later she told me that the landscape reproduced on the cover of this book was painted by Cézanne from the garden or house of Paul Signac in St Tropez, that she caught glimpses of through the big gates during her frequent painting visits to that town during the nineteen-thirties. Dr Eric McCormick added an extra footnote to this by telling me that the villa next to Signac’s was occupied in 1931 by friends of Frances Hodgkins, George and Maude Burge, and that Frances Hodgkins painted in their garden that year.)

Brushes, turps, oil, palette and an opened mahogany paint-box (French) with lots of compartments were on the dining table and when I saw Helen’s huge round brushes I could hardly believe they were responsible for the subtle scumbles and delicate strokes of paint with which she built up her surfaces. This small rather impersonal three-roomed flat provided Helen with a certain detachment from place and possessions that I realised gave her the freedom to concentrate entirely on her painting, and during the six years I visited her, no attempt was ever made to decorate or make her surroundings more homely.

Here, as with all Helen’s past rented rooms, boarding houses and flats, the immediate environment provided her with subject-matter. In Mt Eden, the view out the back door off the kitchen towards the green lawn and lemon tree [Untitled [Lemon Tree] [BC086]], was available to paint in summer. And, when it got too cold to keep the door propped open and winter set in, the view from the dining room window, framed by white nylon curtains, of three macrocarpas [Untitled [Three Trees] [BC089]] and the Dominion Road flyover, was tackled. The neighbour’s Siamese cat [Untitled [Cat no. 1] [BC082], Untitled [Cat no. 2] [BC083]] luxuriating in front of the small electric heater bar produced some fine paintings, and, always, there was a still life or flowers being worked on. These paintings were all small in size, done on commercially primed pieces of canvas and painstakingly fastened with drawing pins hammered in around the edges of the wooden frames, which she re-used constantly, removing the finished painting and tacking on a fresh piece of canvas.


I can’t remember if we had afternoon tea that first day but I asked if I could come again soon, and my next visit established a pattern that was to follow until ill health and extreme old age made it necessary for her to enter a home in Rotorua. I would arrive with a selection of soft, spongy cream cakes which she particularly liked and we would sit up at the table and participate in the rituals of afternoon tea visiting so familiar to me. Helen would perform the task of tea making and serving with great elegance, it providing a form for her Edwardian manners to be displayed gracefully, using the few essential pieces of equipment – cups, saucers, plates and teapot – which, given the otherwise spartan living conditions and minimal possessions, became radiantly transformed into objects of almost ancient significance.

My visits to Helen were always centred on our mutual love of art, past and present, and although her memory was at times blurred and dates hazy, I found that when we sat together and looked at reproductions of paintings in some of the catalogues I brought along with me, they would act as a memory trigger and her response often became sharp, vivid and precise. Once looking at a Picasso catalogue, Helen described with enthusiasm an exhibition she had seen of Picasso’s monumental ‘neo-classic’ nudes of the early nineteen-twenties recalling ‘their big, pink knees’.

As Helen’s eyesight deteriorated, I would shuffle through a pile of postcards gathered up from trips away and read out the artist’s name and title of the painting, deliberately choosing paintings from London or Paris public collections such as the National Gallery or Louvre, that she was possibly familiar with. It was a joyful experience to see Helen’s whole being suffused with memory, eyes half-closed, her mind carrying a clear image of the painting under discussion with all its associated memories.

Our contact was interrupted periodically by travel abroad for both of us, but erratic correspondence and visits when possible kept me in touch with her. Helen was extremely independent, a seemingly self-sufficient women, and although I believe she thoroughly enjoyed our times together, I never felt my visits were essential to her life.

She was born in the same year as Katherine Mansfield, and at times followed a parallel painting path to Frances Hodgkins, whom she knew but modestly claimed nothing more than an acquaintanceship with, although on at least one occasion they stayed in the same pension in St Tropez. A few anecdotes concerning Frances Hodgkins were recalled by Helen including a hair-raising story that F.H. had told her about her fur coat being stolen by two Italian women travelling on the same train. Helen viewed Frances Hodgkins as a ‘professional’ painter, and saw herself always as a student, still struggling at the age of ninety with her ‘foregrounds’. Her life spanned almost one hundred years of some of the most exciting times of change in art history. She was humble and unambitious for herself, but hungry for painting knowledge, mining a small personal seam in her painting that ended in her ninety-eighth year with a nugget of pure gold. I am the richer for having known and loved her.