A photograph of Flora Scales: she’s 14, laughing in a bowler hat, a whip in her right hand, reins in another, mounted side-saddle on a horse called Brunette. The year is 1901. Given her clear delight, it’s not surprising that, along with cattle, she drew and painted horses: sun dappled in fields, their heads drooping, resting, pulling drays. It took her a while to discover modernism; her youthful pictures, filled with nature, peace and golden light, are in thrall to French painting – the Barbizon and Impressionists Schools – and could have been created decades earlier. But then, suddenly, in 1915, amidst the bucolic imaginings, something happens: she paints a family on a beach. The picture is now lost, and only one photograph of it exists, but it’s startlingly different to her earlier work. Two women – formed of smudges and tones – in coats and wide-brimmed hats sit on the sand, facing away from the sea. In front of them are two small children, also in hats. Atmosphere supplants detail; the figures are relaxed, unposed, in the midst of talking, playing; their faces are less distinct than their clothes. The still sea is a pale, silvery blue; the same colour as the limpid sky. One of the women’s yellow coat hums like a sun in the centre of the composition. It appears to have been painted quickly, to capture a mood, a particular gesture, the quality of light. Paint has been employed to create a snapshot. The young equestrienne was becoming modern.
Flora Scales was born in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, 24 May 1887, the second-born child in a family of five children. Her early life was one of privilege: her parents gave her a good education – she attended the Canterbury College School of Art, Christchurch, from 1903-4 – and supported her creative ambitions. In 1908 she travelled to London where she studied at the conservative Frank Calderon School of Animal Painting. There’s no record of her visiting Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions in 1910 and 1912 which, given the direction her work was to take, she surely would have been fascinated by. When World War I broke out, Flora’s two younger brothers enlisted; both were killed. The world had gone to hell. No wonder artists were hungry for new ways of representing it – and living in it.