Laurence Vincent Scully (known as Larry Scully) was born in Gibraltar on 12 December 1922. His father was Irish and his mother was South African.
His most famous painting is the Madonna and Child of Soweto, painted in 1973, which still hangs in the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto and which is visited by people from all over the world.
Larry Scully spent most of his youth in Portsmouth, England. The family was very poor and he left school and home at about 13 years of age to go to work in a grocery shop in order to help to support his family. When he was 15, the family moved to South Africa.
From 1939 to 1946, Scully served in the South African Permanent Forces working as a draftsman. In that time, he also obtained his high school degree through correspondence courses. This qualified him to obtain a grant to study at the University of the Witswatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, from 1947 to 1950. There he was part of a cohort that included Cecil Skotnes, who remained a kind friend throughout Scully’s life, and Christo Coetzee and Esme Berman.
In 1963, he became the first person in South Africa to be awarded a Master of Fine Arts degree (cum laude). Scully’s subject was San influences on Walter Battiss’s work.
In the late 1940s, Scully taught at the Polly Street Art Center in Johannesburg, one of the first art schools on the continent designed to encourage African artists. Polly Street asked him to become director, but Scully reluctantly declined because he needed to pay off his student loans. He became certified as a teacher and from 1951 to 1965 taught Art at Pretoria Boys’ High School, where he followed in the footsteps of his mentor Walter Battiss.
In 1959, Scully married Christine Frost, pianist and teacher at Pretoria Girls’ High. They had twin girls in 1962 just before the family moved to Johannesburg.
During 1950s and 1960s Scully defined his style. An excellent still-life artist and landscape painter, Scully also searched for new forms, experimenting with shapes and textures inspired by African masks, but finally finding in abstract art a passion that remained with him always. His artistic career really took off in 1962 with his one-man exhibition in Pretoria at the South African Association of Arts (SAAA) gallery. He had many exhibitions over the next few years, and he won the prestigious Oppenheimer Painting Prize in 1965.
In 1966, he represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale, and again at the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil in 1967 (with 8 paintings). In the course of the 1960s and ‘70s, he held numerous one-man exhibitions at galleries such as The Goodman Gallery, the Botswana National Gallery, and at SAAA galleries throughout South Africa.
Scully, who was 203 cm tall, also painted on a large scale. Among his most famous works are two murals, one in the Dudley Heights building in Johannesburg, entitled Cityscape, and the other for the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Stellenbosch.
Scully held various leadership positions within the art world, both in education and in civic life. He was head of Fine Arts at the Johannesburg College of Education from 1966 to 1973, when he decided to resign in order to paint full time. In 1976, he became Professor of Fine Arts and Art History at the University of Stellenbosch, a position he held until 1984. He was chair of the South African Association of Arts in Johannesburg, and National Vice-president from 1969-1974. He also served as Chairman of the Venice Biennale selection board in 1970 and was a member of the Aesthetics Committee of the Johannesburg City Council from 1970 to 1974. He was a Trustee of the South African National Gallery from 1978 through 1984.
In the 1970s, Scully headed a committee organizing a Johannesburg Biennale. He planned to have all South Africans represented as artists and audience members. A week or so before the biennale was due to open, the South African government ordered Scully to limit the biennale to whites only. Scully refused to agree to this and shut down the biennale immediately. This was an unusual and highly principled action at a time when most whites supported Apartheid and did little to challenge racial discrimination
Scully was Art Editor of The Sunday Express newspaper in Johannesburg from 1973 to 1975. In that column he highlighted the work of his peers and also used the forum as a place to display his increasing interest in black Johannesburg and the creative tensions arising between the building of skyscrapers such as the Carlton Center, and the poverty and experiences of black South Africans working in the apartheid city.
In 1973 The Star newspaper, a liberal, anti-apartheid newspaper in Johannesburg commissioned Scully to paint a picture to raise money for an education fund for black South Africans. Scully painted The Madonna and Child of Soweto, some 8 foot by 5 foot in size. Harry Oppenheimer of Anglo American bought the painting that was then donated to the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto. Regina Mundi was the site of much anti-apartheid activity both in the 1970s and through to the ending of apartheid in the 1990s. Numerous funerals of activists were held in the church and many organizations used the church for meetings.
During the student uprising in 1976, students fled to Regina Mundi after police shot at them. In 1997, Nelson Mandela declared Regina Mundi Day in recognition of the importance of the church to the anti-apartheid struggle.
In 2004, journalist Mpho Lukoto reflected on 10 years of democracy in South Africa by saying of the painting:
“Perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of the past is the Black Madonna and Child of Soweto, which was painted by Laurence Scully. Beneath the image of the Black Madonna, Scully painted an eye, with the different images in it giving meaning to the picture., the painting is a symbol of the hope that, like the church itself, was in the heart of the people. I like to believe that it was that hope that makes it possible for us to celebrate 10 years of democracy.” The Star, March 23, 2004
Today thousands of visitors still see The Madonna and Child of Soweto on tours of the City and the image of the black Madonna is printed on t-shirts that are sold across South Africa.
In the 1970s, Scully continued to document the changing landscape of Apartheid South Africa, taking numerous photographs of District Six as it was demolished to make way for white settlement in the center of Cape Town. His photographs of District Six are housed in a permanent collection in the Stellenbosch University Art Museum and in the District Six Museum.
Scully’s location in Stellenbosch seems to have drawn him away from the art world in Cape Town, and by the 1990s, Scully was increasingly being acclaimed as a son of Stellenbosch. By his death in 2002 people were rediscovering his work as a lyrical testament to the human spirit—primarily rendered through his beautiful abstract paintings such as Nkosi’ Sikelele iAfrika, completed in 1997 as a celebration of the New South Africa, and through his photography. Scully was a photographer of distinction, winning the South African Republic Art Festival photography prize in 1981. In the 1980s, Scully experimented also with photo-drawings (where he drew with pen on photographs). His most celebrated works are a series “Xhosa Initiates with Transistor radio.” The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art owns one of these photo-drawings. Scully also documented miners’ decorations of their bunks in the mining compounds around Johannesburg.
Scully said of his love of painting: “Painting is for me visual music and visual thinking. My inspiration comes from the colours, textures, forms and light of Africa, and is a continuing search for unity out of diversity.”
A tall, kind man, who nevertheless often infuriated people he worked with in part because of his penchant for whipping out a paintbrush in the middle of a conversation, or demanding the right to change a painting that was now in the possession of a gallery or individual, Scully was a legendary educator.
He inspired devotion among many of his students long after his days as a teacher.
While not an overt political activist, Larry Scully’s desire to recognize the humanity in all people on all sides of the difficult divide that was Apartheid South Africa is probably his lasting legacy, symbolized indeed by his beloved Madonna and Child of Soweto and by his multi-media images of District Six.
At 203 cm tall, Larry Scully has long been accustomed to towering above almost everyone around him. Yet there was nothing overbearing about his demeanour. His quiet manner and sensitivity of temperament belie his intimidating size; and never has his work given evidence of the aggressiveness that might have been expected from so large a man. Indeed, until quite advanced in his career he continued even to compose his pictures on the relatively small formats that were then customary in SA art.
His first exhibition, illustrated the variable furrows that he ploughed, but hinted at reined-in resources. His repeated use of vibrant notes of brilliant red in conjunction with the icy intensity of polar blue spoke an emotional language more emphatic than was communicated in the intricate abstract and semi-abstract symbols. Several pictures discarded the definitive black outline and were composed of ordered planes of smooth, unmodulated colour; these, on hind-sight, can be seen to be the source of subsequent developments.
The following two years were physically uneventful, but during that period of domestic and professional tranquillity a latent lyricism began to blossom in Scully’s work. By 1965 he had matured into a painter of authority and vision; his canvases had grown considerably in scale and his compositions had been purified of all irrelevant notation. The mountains and the sea and the spiritual experience of space in such environs provided the central theme of his second Johannesburg exhibition.
The poetry of the purest of these images does not translate well into black and white reproduction, but the sympathetic mood established by his sparse brush-work and cool expanses of restrained, romantic colour sparked an immediate response among the viewing public – suddenly the reticent artist had ‘broken through’.
That year was an auspicious one for Larry Scully: his recent achievement was honoured by the award of the top prize on ‘Art SA Today’ and his ability acknowledged by 8 the prestige exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum.
The following year he moved to Johannesburg and new environmental forces came to bear on his expression. The College of Education stood on the northern brow and looked down upon the city. From the relative quiet of a Pretoria suburb he was plunged into daily contact with the hub-bub of Hillbrow and the frenzied animation of a developing metropolis. Into the calm breadth of his painted vistas was injected a pulsating rhythm – the percussive syncopation of the city. He was fascinated particularly by the ambiguous night-image of sparkling lights and shadowed finite forms of buildings reaching into the infinite darkness of the starlit sky.
Once more there were moments of irresolution as Scully sought to translate this experience into valid visual terms. For a time he experimented with the technique of staining, which resulted in atmospheric but amorphous canvases, lacking the clarity of vision that had distinguished his preceding phase. He himself was conscious of the need for greater decisiveness of composition and many of the works of 1967 were subsequently transformed by over painting which restructured their informal passages of dripping pigment. Black, which had practically receded from his palette during the cool blue phase of marine themes, returned to his canvases in broad, emphatic zones, to create walls of darkness pierced by windows of colour through which fragmented abstract vistas glow. In seeking to interpret the confining framework of the ‘concrete jungle’, Scully continued to project his vision of the endless light and space of Africa beyond.
His expression of that vision reached a climax in the commission for the vestibule of the Hillbrow apartment building, Dudley Heights. The painted panels, framed by the mural cladding of the pale stone, presented a summary in a forceful abstract form and colour of various aspects of his African experience: the drama of the city, the symbolic presence of tribal ritual, the glitter of electric light, the glow of sun and moon, the spacious sky – blue by day, black by night.
Few of Larry Scully’s subsequent painted compositions were as dramatic in effect or as resolved conceptually. Repetition drained the emblematic forms of their original vitality and Scully’s creative impulse seemed to shift as he became increasingly absorbed in the potential of slide photography. Although he continued to exhibit canvases and screen prints, alluring new professional horizons were opened by his technological adventures with sound and slide projection; exercises with brush and pen became almost mundane alongside the possibilities of creating with light itself.
Almost unintentionally, he had innovated a promising art form and he plunged enthusiastically into the intricacies of ‘photodrawing’. There was murmuring from orthodox photographers when the Stellenbosch artist won the photographic award at the 1981 Rep Fest Exhibition, but Scully was excited by the marriage of his two professional skills and was not to be deterred by disputes about the validity of the new medium.