[Portrait of a Head with Shaded Eyes]
Portrait. Oval shaped head facing viewer. Brown and blue brush work vigorous at level of eyes.
Verso top edge of canvas (in Theo de Lange's hand) Flora Scales last attempt, 1982
Painted at the Rotorua Masonic Village, New Zealand, where Flora Scales was a resident from 26 October 1978 until just before her death in January 1985. Sitter is Theo de Lange.
Eye Surgeon, Murray R. Ashbridge, Rotorua, New Zealand, in a letter to Dr George Fenwick, Eye Surgeon, Auckland, 8 November 1990 “I saw Helen Scales in 1979 at the age of 91 years with a visual acuity of 6/60 in the right eye and 6/36 in the left eye with the best correction. The main cause in the drop in vision was attributable to age-related macula changes with cataract changes as being very minor and for this reason we did not recommend any surgery. I have no record of ever having seen her after that time. At that stage she was using a magnifying glass to help her with close work which was her main recreation at that time.”
Dr George Fenwick to B. de Lange, 29 November 1990: “I don’t think you told me what alterations can be seen in her paintings, but it would be expected that, as her sight deteriorated from normal 6/60 to 6/36, the outline of everything she looked at would become blurred.
I was very much interested in Trevor-Roper’s book [Patrick Trevor-Roper, The World through Blunted Sight, London, Thames & Hudson, 1970]. It confirms that the effect on the eyesight from cataracts would be:
1. A general blur, similar to the effect from macular changes.
2. A predominance of red colouring. This is because the opacities in the lenses (cataracts) absorb the blue parts of the spectrum leaving the red parts unchanged.
It is well known that this is what happened in Turner’s case (mentioned on page 87). If you see this predominance of red in Flora Scales’ work this would mean that the cataracts, although described as minor by Dr Ashbridge, were yet enough to alter the colours as perceived by her. The disorder of the macula by itself would not have this effect on the perception of colour.
It is quite usual to hear people say, after the cataracts have been removed, that “everything looks blue”. What has really happened is that their colour perception has returned to normal, the predominance of red which they had noticed for some months or years while the cataracts were developing has suddenly terminated and given the impression that objects look more blue than they should.
Trevor-Roper says on page 89 that Monet also had bi-lateral cataracts and “the blues became more and more purple”, i.e. the red was becoming predominant as in Turner’s case.
On page 91 Trevor-Roper says that everybody’s sight becomes yellower as they pass middle age, with the result that blue is increasingly absorbed. This seems to mean that even without any cataract there is a change in the way colour appears to the artist. I was not aware of this. You may notice this in her paintings. The reference he gives for this is No 16 on page 172, a reference in the Archives of Ophthalmology of 1953. This medical journal could well be available in Auckland if you would like me to chase it up.”
Photos by Sam Hartnett