[Portrait of a Woman in a Green Dress]

Portrait of woman, full face. Sitter wears a V-necked green garment and is shown against a background of brown brush strokes.

1978 1983
Object type
Medium and materials
oil on canvas
Place Made
Rotorua, New Zealand
Current Collection

Private Collection

Current Location

Auckland, New Zealand

General notes

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 unknown. Scales, in conversation with M. de Lange, 1983, remarked, “I didn't like doing it and she didn't like sitting – her feet were hurting. Three of her friends came and sat on the bed – work stopped soon after,” and continued, “This is only a beginning – it should have been darker under the chin. I wonder why I did full face. One should never do full face. Extraordinary.”

Toss Woollaston in correspondence with B. de Lange, 05.05.1983, “It was good to see the paint functioning so beautifully without the subject. She is a very pure painter. She has gone on working every day and developing. The impairment of her sight seems to me to be no impediment to the paint. I am reminded in some ways of Beethoven's deafness.”

Excerpt from Toss Woollaston's essay for B. de Lange, 1992, "As her sight failed her pictures became more beautiful. It seems as if a spirit, having the use of her hand more and more to itself, set out to prove the eye an encumbrance. 

Even in pictures where most people would say the process goes too far – of Theo [Theo [Portrait of Male Head] [BC096]] for example, and a woman in a green dress [Untitled [Portrait of a Woman in a Green Dress] [BC095]] – there is a similar sort of pleasure to be had to that we take in the art of young children. It is not merely freedom for its own sake we admire, but the very clear expression of a world of innocence. Gone is the mastery of expression in the painting – dated 1960s – of a “Seated Woman” [Seated Woman, Warwick School of Art, London [BC036]]. She is wearing a red beret and a dark jacket. Her hands are folded in front of her. The whole atmosphere is of the artist’s social superiority to the sitter. It is not insisted upon, consciously perhaps, but it is there.

In the Rotorua “Woman in a Green Dress” [Untitled [Portrait of a Woman in a Green Dress] [BC095]] the artist is humble before her subject, beaten into helplessness by her failing powers but nevertheless persevering to paint. The result is paint given liberties it never knew before. We begin by being tempted to criticise incompetence; but end by appreciating in spite of it the unique personality of this artist...

You cannot put the precise definition of the subject in front of the painting in these late pictures by Flora Scales. There is no “social message”, nothing to help you to run away from pure contemplation of the painting. This “self” is a good one. My instant thought – “I wish I could paint like that!” – is curbed by the realisation that if I could it would not be me; and to be myself is the best compliment I can pay to another artist."

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.”


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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