Portrait 2

Portrait. A close up study of the head and shoulders of a woman in a blue garment. Her head is tilted over her left shoulder and she is seen against a ground of yellow ochre. A diagonal blue line indicates nose and feathered green marks indicate her left jaw bone. 

c. 1968
Object type
Medium and materials
oil on canvas
Place Made
England or France

LR brown brush point H Scales

Verso label Willeston Gallery Ltd...Portrait #2, c1968 Helen F V Scales, McCleavy 83/5


Purchased by original owner from Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand, July 1976, when it toured there from the Auckland City Art Gallery exhibition, Helen F V Scales, 1975-1976

Private sale, Auckland, New Zealand, 1980s

Current Collection

Private Collection

Current Location

Auckland, New Zealand

General notes

Title supplied by the artist for Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand, exhibition, Helen F V Scales, 1975-1976. Listed as artwork no. 13 in this exhibition.

The Auckland City Art Gallery preparatory catalogue notes suggested dates 1970-1976 for all three included self-portraits [Portrait 2 [BC065], Portrait 3 [BC066], Portrait 1 [BC120]]. Scales was in New Zealand 1972-1976. The gallery later revised the date to c1968 for the printed catalogue, at which time the artist would have been in England or France. 

Although this is a portrait of Flora Scales, as is Portrait 3 [BC066] and Portrait 1 [BC120], in conversation with M. de Lange, 1983, Scales said, “I never did self-portraits, just used myself as a model when necessary.”

In a letter from Colin McCahon to Peter McLeavey, 13 July 1976, McCahon writes about a recent visit he had made to Flora Scales [see Related images 1 and 2], “We went across the gully to ask Helen [Scales] about the portraits (Anne bearing a jar of pea soup) had a 20 minute chat & sent the telegram. Helen says that there [sic] not real portraits – not what are called portraits. They are all 3 very like her.” The telegram McCahon mentions, sent the same day, simply states, “Actual self portrait. Colin.” McLeavey must have previously asked McCahon if they were self-portraits.

This is a painting of the artist scrutinising her reflection with a cool intense gaze. It is a penetrating search for structure as if her own head was an architectural or landscape subject to be investigated and reconstructed.

Toss Woollaston in correspondence with B. de Lange, 05.05.1983, wrote, “After stimulating me thirty-nine years ago Miss Scales has done it again. This time not because of the theories, but because of her painting. The paint is the thing. It is so sensitive, infinitely varied in application, strong and adventurous.”

Toss Woollaston in correspondence with B. de Lange, 29.06.1983, wrote, “And in the self portraits the construction is again part of the expression, and, greatly, a means of it. Whereas the drawing dated c 1930 [Untitled [Cubist Drawing of a Seated Man] [BC098]] wears its construction like plates of armour, the recent works have plenty but it doesnt [sic] show. It is absorbed into a way of painting so sensitive and personal that its contribution cannot be isolated. It can to some extent be described in "Portrait 2" [BC065] – the short steep diagonal upwards to the left in the chest and shoulders, contrasting with the much longer upward-to-the-right one in the head; which again contrasts with a shorter flatter diagonal to the left across the face – this last echoing, while it varies from, the one in the torso.

But this description as it stands is too simple – to extend it would be to emphasise that these diagonals are not merely lines but become planes and volumes that impart life to the painting by their movement over the page and through the space of the picture.

Construction in these portraits is subtly and powerfully the means and mode of likeness. The "Portrait 2" [BC065] is a picture of an old woman first and a particular old woman last. The construction is powerfully – and delicately – appropriate to the subject. The brush strokes are so sensitive, the colours so beautiful. There is a quality that is hard to describe about both the pencil marks and the brush strokes – as if they hesitated to come into existence – but they do arrive, they make it – and the result is an amazing degree of sensitiveness. There is no weakness, the underlying sense of purpose and structure is so strong it looks after them, as a mother would her children. In a painting of this kind, at this height, the question of 'likeness' does not arise. In the differences between each portrait there is an assurance of a profound likeness to the undoubted individuality of each. Construction is used to achieve this. The same painter's vision is in them all – the same means. Infinitely varied yet always recognisably the same painter's vision. It makes no grandiose statement. It is just 'there'. It is like life itself.”

Excerpt from Toss Woollaston's essay for B. de Lange, 1992, “When I saw the [1976] exhibition of her work at the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington I revised my estimation of her as an inveterate student. The pictures were all small, beautiful and sensitive evidence of an artist's personality. Nobody else could have painted them. I would dearly have liked to acquire one or both of her self portraits with the head tilted to one side, not only laterally, but in depth, so that your vision moved with it in deep space – but they were gone before I got to the exhibition.”

Used as illustration

'Art award a lottery for losers' by James Ross, The Week, 16 July 1976, pg 17 (black and white)


Foreword by Colin McCahon, Helen F V Scales exhibition catalogue, Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand, November 1975

“We hope this exhibition will tell people of a lifetime of painting, from her sometimes didactic early work to the poetry of her plum trees [BC071-BC075, BC077] and the portraits [BC065, BC066, BC120].

The beauty of her vision comes from her thinking about painting and from the grace and care she gives to her work. Without this, how could the plum trees have grown and the portraits become so real?”

'Art award a lottery for losers' by James Ross, The Week, 16 July 1976, pg 17

“The three ironic Self Portraits [BC065, BC066, BC120] are among Scales's best work and testify to a lifetime's devotion to her art.”

‘A Personal Reminiscence’ by Gretchen Albrecht, Art New Zealand, issue 37, 1985, pg 52

“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.”

'A Friend of Flora' by Gretchen Albrecht, Flora Scales, The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatū, Nelson, New Zealand, 2018, pp 39-43

“My response to these self portraits [Portrait 2 [BC065], Portrait 3 [BC066], Portrait 1 [BC120]] and a poetic group of landscapes all titled ‘ Orchard and Plum Tree’ [BC071-BC075, BC077], with their strokes of paint dissolving and reassembling edges and planes of colour, was immediate and intense. I left the gallery driven by an urgent desire to meet and speak to the woman who had painted them...For me she was living proof that painting could stand at the core of a woman’s life and sustain her through anything. She was humble and unambitious for herself but always hungry for painting knowledge, which ended in her 98th year. I am richer for having known and loved her.”

‘Becoming Modern: The paintings of Flora Scales’ by Jennifer Higgie, written for florascales.com, 2022

"Around 1968, Scales painted three self-portraits: it’s startling, after so many landscapes, to see her face appear. In Portrait 1 [BC120], a monochrome study in browns and ochres, she almost disappears: the suggestion of an eye, a line for a nose, a gash for mouth; the strongest mark is the ‘v’ of her top. In Portrait 2 [BC065], she springs to life, emerging from a yellow – possibly sunlit – background. The blue of her clothes is matched by the ribbon in her hair. Her head is cocked, she glances to her left, the white of her eyes vivid. In Portrait 3 [BC066], she’s fading fast; the details of her face, filled with light, are dissolving."


Essay by Toss Woollaston, 1992, reproduced with the kind permission of the Toss Woollaston Trust, May 2021

Photos by Sam Hartnett

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