Helen F.V. Scales


16 December, 1975
— 11 January, 1976


Auckland City Art Gallery


Auckland, New Zealand

In 1974 Colin McCahon, inspired by the discovery that Flora Scales had returned to live in New Zealand, conceived a plan to mount an exhibition of her work at the Auckland City Art Gallery (Director Ernest Smith) over the summer of 1975-1976. A large cast of friends and colleagues were called upon to help bring this plan to fruition. Eventually Brenda Gamble, Programme Secretary at the Gallery, became the curator as well as being responsible for the social side of the event.

Correspondence Flora Scales to Brenda Gamble, 19 September 1975:
“It is very good of you to suggest an opening ceremony and I hope you will not think me ungrateful if I do not fall in with the idea.
I will go to post now.
Once more with many thanks.
Yours sincerely,
Helen F V Scales”

Brenda Gamble to Flora Scales, 24 September 1975:
“No we do not think you ungrateful in the least for not wanting an opening ceremony for your exhibition – we just thought we would ask in case you liked the idea. Perhaps we can have a cup of tea with you here on whichever day you would like to come in.”

Scales played very little part in the organisation of the exhibition, apparently content to leave it in the enthusiastic hands of McCahon and his team. She did not have an opening celebration or give lectures or explanatory talks to promote her work. Possibly she thought, as the artist, she had completed her part in the venture. Also, as the following letter shows, she felt physically unable to take on anything extraneous to her painting.

Flora Scales to Brenda Gamble, 04 June 1975:
“Thank you for your letter asking me to come and see the way you and your collaborators have arranged [the paintings] for exhibition and the catalogue. I am sure they would be very well placed and have faith that you would do it to make the most of them – but I understand how you feel about it – I have been laid up for a week and do not feel fit enough to come in tomorrow. I hope you will excuse me? I am touched at your kindness in ordering a car for me…”

However Scales did make one firmly expressed intervention, Brenda Gamble to Toss Woollaston, 25.06.1975: “Last Thursday, by invitation, Miss Scales came in to confirm the dating and some of the titles of her paintings. I read to her my introduction [to the catalogue] in case I had made any mistakes in the notes I had scribbled down when she was here in February and asked for clarification of one or two things. She maintained very strongly that she did not want you mentioned in the catalogue. What she added was “What I told Mr Woollaston and what he later made of it is nothing to do with me.”

An unusual aspect of the exhibition was that the paintings were for sale under the management of McCahon. The exhibition travelled to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 5 March - 15 April (Director Ron O'Reily); Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, 17 May - 7 June (Director Gordon Brown); and Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, 5 July - 19 July. By the end of its tour, in Wellington, nineteen paintings had been sold priced at either $150 or $300 with a commission of 33.3% charged in the case of the McLeavey Gallery.

Scales welcomed the income as a means to fulfil her own dream of returning to Europe and buying a car for use as a mobile studio. Sadly, the last part of this plan did not come to pass.

In hindsight, it is clear that McCahon’s innovative exhibition, honouring her life work, was the catalyst for the ensuing rise in interest and recognition of Scales’s work. The acknowledgement was a fitting gift from the younger artist.

- B de Lange, 2021

Credit: Correspondence quoted regarding this exhibition is held in the E. H. McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, New Zealand, ref. Scales, H F V., Artist File 2A

Foreword by Colin McCahon, Helen F. V. Scales exhibition catalogue:
Kim Wright and Barry Lett discovered Miss Scales working in Auckland a year or so ago. She is still painting.

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?

Some of Miss Scales's paintings were shown informally in a friend's home last year but this is her first one-woman exhibition in a public art gallery. The exhibition has been organised by the Auckland City Art Gallery's Exhibition Department with the additional help of Anne Kirker and Brenda Gamble and the support of the Director, Ernest Smith. I thank all these people and, of course, Miss Scales who made the paintings and who is kindly permitting them to be shown.

- Colin McCahon, Auckland, November 1975

Excerpt from Introduction by Brenda Gamble, Helen F. V. Scales exhibition catalogue:
"Miss Scales is a representative of that breed of intelligent, independent 19th century women who set themselves a goal and attained it, regardless of difficulty or disability, which in her case, was persistently poor health…I met Miss Scales one afternoon in February this year [1975] and asked her if she would tell me some details of her personal life for the purpose of providing notes for this catalogue. Miss Scales, a naturally reserved and charming woman, was very kind and patiently answered all my questions. When asked to comment on her preferences in contemporary painting she said she liked “modern pictures" but would not elaborate on any specific paintings she had seen because she said, "I never criticise young painters I have so many faults myself". A remark very much in character."

Letter to Ron O'Reilly from Toss Woollaston, Motueka, New Zealand, 15 July 1976: 
“Dear Ron, I have at last seen the Flora Scales show – at Peter's [Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand]. I enjoyed it very much…All those little pictures, getting so big and strong (most of them) while you look. So feelingly painted, while so theoretical, too…It made me wonder why after all we paint such big pictures these days, if all that can be done with small ones…” - Toss Woollaston: A Life in Letters, ed. Jill Trevelyan, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2004, pg 385

Woollaston's closing observation here seems to echo that of Hans Hofmann in 1931, forty-four years earlier, when he wrote, “The small picture format might be much more living, much more leavening, stirring and awakening than square yards of wall space.” - ‘On the Aims of Art’ by Hans Hofmann in Dickey, Tina, Color Creates Light: Studies with Hans Hofmann, Trillistar Books, Canada, 2011, pg 103 (originally published Fortnightly (San Francisco) 1, no. 13, February 26 1932)

Exhibition artworks


Exhibition reviews

‘Flora's Grapes are Trod’ by Alan Brunton, Spleen, no. 5, September 1976, "Colin McCahon has been responsible for the recent touring exhibition of small works by Helen F. V. Scales (aka Flora Scales), a show which debuted modestly in the Auckland City Art Gallery and garnered little notice even when it was moved down the main trunk line until it fetched up at the pertinacious McLeavey Gallery in Wellington in the month of July 1976. In the light of certain comments on the wireless and in some of these 'weekly' papers which have hazarded at great cost to their credibility a conjectural history of alleged Expressionist tendencies in New Zealand's art history, the paintings exposed here come as some slight comfort for the basic tenets of such conjecture. It would not be cavalier to suggest that McCahon's involvement in the Scales' show was a deliberate gesture, indeed one could say an attending to orders by the reticent national living monument.

In rare act of fealty, I mean rare for this country, McCahon prefaced a few remarks to the Auckland catalogue which, with clarity and predictable brevity, suggest why the time is right for Flora Scales; the master spake thusly:

“Kim Wright and Barry Lett discovered Ms Scales working in Auckland a year or so ago. She is still painting. 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 and the portraits. 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?”

Unfortunately there are only two paintings here from the numinous period when Flora Scales' grapes were trod. If we can except for a moment McCahon’s remarks about ‘grace and care’ the curious and chronological had to be satisfied here with a slight vin ordinaire.

Her moment in history depends upon the coincidence of her returning to New Zealand at a time and place when the ingenuous Toss Woollaston was about to kiss the sky. Woollaston covers all this ground in his little proces-verbal, The Faraway Hills, published by the Auckland Art Gallery Associates some years ago.

In between the mumbo-jumbo about 'systems of rotating and overlapping planes', Woollaston intimates that Ms Scales showered him with the theory of Cézanne as refracted through the blinkered German eyes of Hans Hofmann in whose atelier she had studied for nine months in the early thirties.

Just how much Cézanne was imparted to the young Woollaston the few times he and she did meet in Tahunanui in 1934 beyond the painterly gobbledygook which Woollaston has recorded is of little moment. For this lad, too timorous by his own confession, to leave his native land, we can say that Ms Scales provided a spiritual experience, she could talk about European modern art. The facts of this meeting must await more complete disclosure by one of the principals. While Woollaston has mentioned Cézanne, it will be of interest to regular readers of this paper that Flora Scales has recorded that, whilst at the Hofmann School, she studied a Van Gogh Self-Portrait in Munich’s Neue Pinakotheke (sadly no longer there) and described it as 'best of all'. (See SPLEEN 4 page 2).

It is a matter of some frustration for the chronologist that much of Ms Scales opera of the 1930s was left in a Paris warehouse in 1940 and was pillaged there by the occupying fascist forces.

Given the slightness of this exhibition, the case for Flora Scales must rest. That the connection between Scales and Woollaston is considered significant, is evidenced by the heavy institutional buying from the exhibition. Twelve works were sold, for instance, during two weeks in Wellington. As a result of the exhibition, Ms Scales' work was purchased (at starting prices of around the $300 mark) by the Auckland City Art Gallery, the Robert McDougall Gallery, Govett-Brewster and the National Art Gallery. Private collectors in Auckland and Wellington paid the price. The Hocken Library acquired a 1939 work, Greniar, St Tropez, Southern France [BC024], which shows a persuasive affinity with some of McCahon's landscapes of around 1940, and Boarding House, St lves, Cornwall [BC060], 1968-70.

The paintings, rather small at (usually) c. 250mm x 350mm, are charming in an unimportant sort of way. The titles, Mousehole, Cornwall; Bry-sur-Marne, near Paris; Rye, Sussex, describe the views adequately. It is curious that so many are signed both F. Scales (or simply Scales and, in one case only, Flora Scales) plus H. Scales – I wonder why?

Description has to rest with McCahon's 'grace and care'. Meantime, those who walk the cold streets of Wellington on a Sunday afternoon and reach the conjunction of Manners St and Cuba St, should be aware that Flora Scales paid a guinea subscription to join a class of 34 to study with the Academy Studio Club in 1914. It happened just there. In Winder’s Building."

‘Flora Scales Work on Show’ by T. J. McNamara, New Zealand Herald, 9 January 1976, "Helen F. V. Scales, better known as Flora Scales gets a mention in the standard histories of art in New Zealand as a painter who, in the 1930s, brought a fertilising influence from modern German painting into New Zealand art.

The connection was through Hans Hofmann, a German theorist who moved to the United States and had a considerable influence on painting there.

Flora Scales studied under Hofmann and absorbed his theories about the independence of the work of art, its relationships and its colour, from the visual experience that starts it off.

The difficulty for the student of painting here was that very little work by Flora Scales has ever been seen. Now, at last when the painter is nearing her 89th year, we can see a show of her work in the City Gallery.

The work is very fluid and expressive but very small in scale and very reticent. It is hard to see how, of itself, it has had the influence attributed to it.

The paintings are mostly landscapes with some still lifes and portraits. Miss Scales lost a lot of paintings stored in Paris during the Second World War, but the selection dates from 1939 through to 1970.

Despite their small scale the works look best seen from a considerable distance. Most appealing are some anemones painted in 1968 [BC051], and a charming Orchard with Plum Tree [BC071-BC075, BC077] painted quite recently.

In all of the paintings the colour moves in a spiral into the depth of the picture and makes a little hazy harmony like a tiny melody hummed very quietly on a still day.

They are the graceful artefacts of an unusual and thoughtful life.

The exhibition ends on Sunday."

‘88 year olds Exhibition’, Taranaki Herald, 10 April 1976, "Forty three oil paintings by the artist who first brought post impressionist art to New Zealand are on display at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.

The artist, Helen Flora Scales (88) now living in Auckland, is still painting. She was born in Lower Hutt and in later years studied in London, Paris and Munich. The Nazis destroyed most of her early work in Paris in 1940.

Her work showed the influence of such artists as Cézanne, a famous French post impressionist, in its transition from landscape painting to the later impressionist work, still-life abstracts in strong, vibrant colours. She in turn influenced another New Zealand painter, M. T. Woollaston, when she returned to the country in 1934."

'Art award a lottery for losers' by James Ross, The Week, 16 July 1976, pg 17, "…In complete contrast to the Benson and Hedges [$3000 art award exhibition also reviewed here] was the quiet opening last week of paintings by Helen Scales. This painter – perhaps better known as Flora Scales – has, at the age of 88, at last been given a comprehensive exhibition in the city where she began her artistic career 68 years ago.

Her background is varied; she studied both in Britain and on the continent, and remembers clearly James Nairn at Pumpkin Cottage, and visits to Goldie's studio. Her story is that of the typical expatriate – short visits home and an intense longing to return to Europe. It was on one of these short visits to New Zealand after the First World War that Scales gave lessons to the young Toss Woollaston, imparting to him some Of the then-revolutionary teachings of the Hans Hofmann School in Munich, which Scales attended in the early 1930s. On her meanderings through Europe she was in regular contact with other expatriate artists such as Frances Hodgkins, D. K. Richmond, and Sydney Thompson.

Her own paintings have a breadth and richness that defies their small scale. They are imbued with patient, contemplative attitudes developed in a lifetime devoted to the study of simple motifs. This is something entirely new and different in the history of New Zealand art.

Colour and space are the corner stones of Scales' art; drawing, although correct, plays a more subordinate role. The paint is applied thinly, almost in smudges, and the diffused colour serves to make both space and light palpable and specific.

In the 1969-70 series, Orchard with Plum Tree [BC071-BC075, BC077], there is an eastern almost zen-like approach to nature. The three ironic Self portraits [BC065, BC066, BC120] are among Scales's best work and testify to a lifetime's devotion to her art."

‘Flora Scales’ by Neil Rowe, Art New Zealand, vol. 1, 1976, pg 9, "One of the more extraordinary stories in the history of New Zealand art is that of the rediscovery of eighty-eight-year-old Miss Helen F. V. Scales (better known as Flora Scales) after a forty years disappearance. Over this period her importance in a historical context has become considerable. About a year ago Auckland gallery directors Barry Lett and Kim Wright met Miss Scales living and painting in Auckland, after having returned unheralded from the United Kingdom. An exhibition was mounted at Auckland City Art Gallery last December (incredibly her first one-man show in a public gallery) and shown recently at the Peter McLeavey Gallery in July. Flora Scales had left New Zealand in 1928 on her second study trip to Europe. She worked at the Grand Chamiere [sic] studio in Paris and in the early 'thirties went to Munich to study at the Hans Hoffman [sic] School, returning to New Zealand again in 1934. It was at this time that Toss Woollaston met her in Nelson, and was allowed to use her notes from the Hoffman School. Woollaston acknowledges his debt to Flora Scales in his autobiographical piece, The Faraway Hills. The extent of that debt has never been so apparent as now. In viewing a representative body of her work (forty- three paintings from 1939 to 1970) we can see the stylistic influence Miss Scales, and indirectly Hans Hoffman, had on the young Woollaston, and ultimately on his mature style. Hans Hoffman has been a seminal influence in post-war American art, and on the New York school and Jackson Pollock in particular. That his theories and techniques radically influenced one of our own important painters is entirely due to Flora Scales."


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