Flora Scales and The Women of Pumpkin Cottage

by Lizzie Bisley

Published 2023

Written for florascales.com on the occasion of The Women of Pumpkin Cottage, an exhibition held at Whirinaki Whare Taonga, Upper Hutt, New Zealand, 17 June, 2023 - 23 October, 2023


Installation view, The Women of Pumpkin Cottage, Whirinaki Whare Taonga, Upper Hutt, New Zealand, 2023. Image courtesy Whirinaki Whare Taonga.

Te Papa holds an artist’s smock, easel, paint box and palette that belonged to Flora Scales. These objects are rare everyday survivals, and they offer a tantalising glimpse into the daily work of being an artist. The high-necked smock – which fastens at the back to protect its wearer’s clothing – is marked with paint and oil from brushes wiped across its cotton surface. The palette is coated in fields of dried paint, in colours familiar from Scales’ finished canvasses. The wooden box, bought from a top Paris art supplier, is full of half used tubes of oil paint (cadmium red, burnt sienna, viridian green) and fat brushes.

These objects were displayed in the exhibition The Women of Pumpkin Cottage at Whirinaki Whare Taonga (June to October 2023). The smock stood in the middle of the room, bringing the artists’ craft into the centre of this story. On the surrounding walls were paintings by Scales and five other women painters – all of whom worked at some point with James Nairn at his Pumpkin Cottage artist’s retreat, in the Wellington suburb of Silverstream.

The works in the exhibition dated from roughly 1900 to the 1930s, but many of the artists included began to paint in the late 19th century. In the 1880s and 1890s a large number of women enrolled at art schools, both in New Zealand and around the world. This exhibition gave an excellent snapshot of some of the varied careers that women had during this period – from artists like Flora Scales and Frances Hodgkins, who spent most of their lives working outside New Zealand, to painters like Mabel Hill and MER Tripe, who managed to combine married life and children with their practice as artists and teachers. The women represented in the exhibition mostly came from middle class families – as young women, this ease of money and time helped them to start their training as artists.

Although all of these women began training in New Zealand, they also all spent periods working and studying in other parts of the world. In the exhibition we get a sense of how fluid the boundaries were between Aotearoa, Australia, and Europe, with many of the artists making frequent trips between these places, throughout their lives. In some senses, the community of New Zealand painters also travelled between continents. Many early 20th-century artists remained networked to each other while living outside of Aotearoa – both by meeting up and working together overseas, and by staying in close correspondence with those who remained at home.


Flora Scales, Basilica and Lighthouse, St Tropez, Southern France [BC021], 1939, oil on canvas on board, 330 x 398mm

The connections between the five women in the exhibition were layered and inter-generational. Frances Hodgkins and Dorothy Kate Richmond met in France in 1901, spending much of the following year travelling and painting together in Europe. Hodgkins and Mabel Hill knew each other in the very late 19th-century, when Hill left a burgeoning career at Wellington Technical School to marry the Dunedin printer John McIndoe. Hodgkins, aware of the danger of marriage ending an artist’s career, wrote to her sister in 1899: “Mrs McIndoe has started taking pupils. I wonder what she got married for. I should have thought she had had enough of that kind of thing. She is a perfect demon for work and gets through a tremendous amount.”1

Thirty-two years later, in 1931, Frances Hodgkins was painting in the South of France with two of the exhibition’s younger artists – Flora Scales and Maude Burge. An article published in Wellington’s Evening Post noted that the three women (and another local painter, Gwen Knight) were all working together in St Tropez. A few sentences on in the article Mabel Hill reappears, the author noting that she was also spending the summer in Europe, painting in Capri with the New Zealander Maud Sherwood.2 These frequent crossings and meetings reveal a map of friendships and shared histories, with New Zealand painters often seeking and helping each other out, congregating in popular artist retreats, taking lessons from each other, sharing villas and views.

The 1931 trip to St Tropez was of particular significance for Flora Scales, as it appears that it was during that summer that she first became aware of Hans Hofmann’s Munich School of Art. Frances Hodgkins wrote to her friend Dorothy Selby, in June 1931: ‘There is a Professor from Munich here with a Class of Americans & Swedes who is making them stretch their brains. He is very able and a good lecturer young & nice looking with a charming pyjama-ed American wife.’3 This professor seems to have been ED Kinzinger, the Director of the Munich school. In late 1932, after a quick visit home to Wellington, Scales enrolled for six months study at his school.

In this moment, by choosing to study in Germany, Scales took a different route from many of her Australian and New Zealand contemporaries. As is shown in the exhibition, New Zealand artists of Scales’ generation typically followed a fairly standard path through Europe. After studying in London or Paris, they would often spend time painting and taking lessons in regional France, Italy, and England. It was much more unusual for New Zealanders to train in Germany, or to study the particular brand of modernism practised by Hofmann. After her time in Munich, Scales enthusiastically adopted Hofmann’s principles – continuing to work with them for the rest of her life. These ideas were obviously fresh in 1930s New Zealand, as demonstrated by Toss Woollaston’s excitement when he met Scales in Nelson in the mid-1930s.


Flora Scales, Mediterranean Village [BC019], 1938, oil on canvas on board, 327 x 409mm

The exhibition Women of Pumpkin Cottage, and Scales’ place with in it, is a good reminder of the breadth of painting practice in early 20th-century New Zealand. All of the women in the exhibition were highly dedicated to their practice – Scales’ smock, easel and palette remind us that their lives were shaped around the daily practice of painting, the work of colour, canvas and composition. These artists all exhibited frequently, sold work, and engaged with other painters in both New Zealand and in Europe. Although their painting had different subjects, styles, and markets, they all reflect an aspect of the early 20th-century art world, and a different idea of what it meant to be a contemporary artist during this period. They are a thin slice from a much larger group of women artists of their generation, and hint at the huge wealth and diversity of other work, still to be explored and celebrated.

1 Frances Hodgkins to Isabel Field, 4 June 1899. Correspondence of Frances Hodgkins and family / collected by Isabel Field (Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-0085-07).

2 ‘Valuable pictures. Mr EM Fuller returns. Views on British art’, The Evening Post, 25 January 1932, p. 7

3 Frances Hodgkins to Dorothy Selby, 25 June 1931. E H McCormick Archive of Frances Hodgkins' Letters, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki