Portrait 1

Portrait. Head and shoulders of a woman with her head erect and slightly turned over her right shoulder. She is wearing a V-necked outer garment. Pale or white brush work at the base of her neck.

c. 1968
Object type
Medium and materials
oil on paper
Place Made
England or France
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. 12 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. 

This is a reproduction of Portrait 1 [BC120] from 'Art award a lottery for losers' by James Ross, The Week, 16 July 1976, pg 17 (black and white). This is the only image recorded of this work, its location is unknown.

Although this is a portrait of Flora Scales, as is Portrait 2 [BC065] and Portrait 3 [BC066], 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.”

FLORA SCALES – The Lost Portrait

This painting is one of the twenty-five paintings that remained unsold when the exhibition, Helen F. V. Scales, closed at the Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, on 19 July, 1976.

These paintings were airfreighted by McLeavey to the Auckland City Art Gallery on 20 July 1976, from where they were returned to Scales before her departure for France in December 1976.

In a letter to B. de Lange dated 1977, Patricia France records that during her visit to Scales at her Mt Eden flat in 1976, she told Scales she, “...had been unable to come to her exhibition so she opened her suitcase and this painting was on top.” Patricia France promptly bought the painting [St Michael [BC041]].

It is a tantalising image; the open suitcase, the painting on top and perhaps an unknown number of paintings lying below. Almost certainly there would have been the unsold paintings returned to her by the Auckland City Art Gallery and others which, like France’s had not been included in the exhibition.

It could be assumed that the canvases would have been unframed and unstretched, to fit in a small suitcase. Perhaps Scales had freed the paintings, once exhibited, from their stretchers with a sharp blade to make them more portable. This could also explain the irregularities in the measurements in some of her paintings.

In this way, it would have been possible for Scales to carry many paintings back to France in her suitcase. For example, ten unstretched canvases stacked together could be as small as ten millimetres deep and the weight would have been negligible.

Three of Scales’s paintings were left at the house of her godson, Boris Kalachnikoff, in Bry-sur-Marne, France, when she returned finally to New Zealand in 1977 [Port of Mousehole at Sunset [BC026], Les Anemones [BC048] and Le Bleymard, Lozère, France [BC078]]. The unknown number of paintings that Scales brought back with her to New Zealand, and the paintings she had made at Brentwood Avenue, Mt Eden, in 1977 and 1978, formed the collection at the Rotorua Masonic Village from which Janet Paul selected seventeen paintings. These became part of the Scales donation to the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, in 1979. How many remained at the Village and what became of them is unknown to date.

 - B. de Lange, March 2023

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

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