Helen Flora Victoria Scales (1887-1985) was born in Lower Hutt, Wellington. Her father encouraged her artistic talent, taking her to London in 1908 for four years training at William Frank Calderon’s School of Animal Painting. Her study concluded with the hanging of one of her works in the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1911.
After her return to New Zealand, Scales joined the Academy Studio Club in 1914 and became a regular exhibitor at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts from 1906. She became identified in the New Zealand gallery-goer’s mind with animal painting (firstly) and modern landscape (later in life), the kind of subject matter seen in the work illustrated here.
The popularity in Wellington of works such as this – watercolour on a modest scale depicting local scenery – was due in large part to the local influence of Dorothy Kate Richmond. Scales’ work, however, derives from quite a different art training and could not be mistaken for that of Richmond’s. The specificity of this watercolour’s content suggests a commission, though the circumstances of its production are today unknown.
In 1928 a bequest from her father enabled the artist to return to Europe, where she studied in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Scales first met Frances Hodgkins in Paris and later joined her in St Tropez in 1931, along with Gwen Knight, on a sketching trip. Knight urged Scales to continue her studies and suggested she enrol with Edmund Kinzinger at the Hans Hofmann School of Art in Munich.
Returning to Nelson in 1934, Scales met and inspired Toss Woollaston, before leaving New Zealand in 1936 to continue her studies at the Académie Ranson, Paris, and the Heatherley School of Fine Arts, London. During the 1950’s Scales’ handling of paint became more confident, with broader brush strokes and an increasingly atmospheric quality to her abstract landscapes.
In 1972 she resettled in New Zealand where she became recognised as a pioneering and remarkably independent painter. Her first solo exhibition was arranged by Colin McCahon at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1975. McCahon expressed his admiration for Scales’ work stating;
‘The beauty of her vision comes from her thinking about painting and from the grace and care she gives her work’.
When Gretchen Albrecht saw Scales’ paintings exhibited she was immediately drawn to their distinctive form.
‘The work of a woman following her own path … she was living proof that painting could stand at the core of a woman’s life and sustain her through everything’.
Gretchen Albrecht became a supporter and friend after assisting Scales to return to France in 1976, by encouraging her circle of friends to purchase paintings. Scales would return to New Zealand permanently in 1977.