[Portrait of Male Head]
Portrait male head and shoulders. Some brush strokes of blue and black at lower edge. Red brown background at left. Touches of thick brown/green paint at left side of sitter's nose and left eye.
Verso LL ballpoint (not in artist's hand) Theo hear [sic] last, Flora Scales
Verso Centre Grumbacher label
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. M. de Lange recorded her observations and photographed the sittings in Scales's room at the Rotorua Masonic Village, 1982. Except from The Notebooks of Marjorie de Lange recording conversations with Flora Scales, 1982-1983, “She said she was tired…but we decided to go ahead and of course as soon as she began it was magical. She is galvanised – sitting with her back to the window, sorting through her box of paints and brushes…beautiful brushes all with their brush heads bound with cotton thread to keep their shape…She is having difficulty finding everything because of reading the labels. Theo is opening her tubes of paint.
I wish I could draw the scene. She’s donned a lovely white calico artist’s smock with a high ruff collar. Theo is seated on a little stool near her so the light is good, by the window. She sat and quietly studied him for a long time. And then she said, “I will have a little rest”. Then she said, “Now I am thinking I spend a lot of time thinking, but this is actually work”. Her legs are encased in thick wool stockings and are so frail and stick-like and her hands are just bones, but shapely and relaxed. She looks so elegant sitting as straight as a die – lovely to watch her completely in control, her eye penetrating and her hand absolutely steady, her arm extended, so thin and frail. She must already be tired with holding her palette and brush. She is completely absorbed…she asked me to move “that awful pink candlewick bedspread” that was in the background…there is too much light…the sun reflecting off the concrete path outside…but she’s had a little pause and is now at it again…she lasted about 40 minutes altogether, by which time she had roughly blocked in Theo’s head, using what she called “light red”, a terracotta colour, direct on to her canvas board, lightly diluted with linseed oil. She had on her palette, this light red, ultramarine blue, yellow ochre and some white, but only used the red. She was exhausted, said every stroke was so important and she visibly bristles with concentration. She says “I aim to get the character”. This seems to be more important than anything and there is no doubt that she already has done this. She said she hoped we could come again the next day.
Friday She was looking very bright and ready to start, quite business-like but charming to Theo, who was told to rest whenever he felt like it. It’s sad her eyesight is so poor. We helped to squeeze her colours on to the mahogany palette, which is a muddle of old dried up paints. She found it difficult to separate them and before long had them and all of her brushes mixed up. Uses light red, ochre and blue only – the white as yet untouched. The general colour so far is the terracotta colour like the red conté pencil. I would like to sit beside her and tell her where the colour she wants is, but although she gratefully allowed me on one or two occasions when I felt she was lost on the palette, I didn’t like to intrude too often.
She’s really doing a sort of monochrome – perhaps later on more colour will come into it.
She is adoring it and looks ten years younger. The canvas board is 20” x 16” so she has no difficulty seeing what she’s doing on it and Theo is sitting very close so she can see him too.
When she stops she is so tired that I have to lift her from the chair and take off her lovely old calico smock and half carry her across to her bed and lie her down. Tidy her things up for her and then leave. She is expecting us again tomorrow.
Saturday Started very late and she only painted for about 20 minutes. We took Theo’s camera and asked if she’d mind…Today she has gone beyond the blocking in outline that was so decisive and interesting – she is sort of filling it in and to me it looks as though she’s lost because the colours are merging and hard for her to define. I could be wrong though. She spent ages, just sitting studying Theo intently. Sadly, she’s always too tired to talk about it when she’s finished and of course we don’t talk when she’s working…
We’ve had another sitting, working in the afternoon, because she now gets up so late, there isn’t time in the morning. The light and heat was dreadful and we think she realised that she can’t see well enough. I suggested that perhaps she would like to give up the project. She said that, yes, in the meantime until she felt fitter this would be advisable, but that she would leave it on the easel and look at it and perhaps do some work on it from memory.”
Correspondence from M. de Lange, undated, 1982, written in response to a letter from B. de Lange saying she had visited Flora Scales and couldn’t find Theo’s portrait, “Well your letter put me in a tizz too! As a result I dashed back to her this morning armed with a bottle of brandy and a camera. I’ve been thinking that I would risk giving her brandy to have in her room for ages. It’s a great pick-me-up and I could have done with some to give her last evening. She was delighted to get it! Why didn’t I do it before? She immediately had a nip.”
[Marjorie then found the painting which had been covered by another canvas, and the letter continues...]
“She firmly but charmingly informed me that she didn’t want [the portrait to be photographed] before the painting was completed…she was firm and went to great lengths to show me why she preferred not. She put the painting down and covered the places that she wished to block out with little pieces of paper – this was a revelation to me. Instantly I could appreciate that she knew where it had gone wrong and intends to put it right. What was left was marvellous – Theo’s jaw, his mouth and nose – it was around the eyes that she’d got lost.”
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.”
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...
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.”
Essay by Toss Woollaston, 1992, reproduced with the kind permission of the Toss Woollaston Trust, May 2021
Photos by Sam Hartnett