Sean Scully

A Happy Land


Not on display

Sean Scully born 1945
Oil paint on 3 canvases
Displayed: 2444 × 2444 × 77 mm
Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 to celebrate the Tate Gallery Centenary 1997


A Happy Land is a large oil painting that consists of three separate linen canvases secured together at the back to form a large square picture. The central square canvas, featuring red and green horizontal and vertical stripes, is enclosed by two larger C-shaped canvases bearing yellow and black vertical stripes. The palette is muted and the warm red and yellow ochres contrast with the deep green and rich black. The grey of the ground and underlayers is visible at the edges of many of the patches of colour. The painting’s scale, its square composition and its carefully arranged stripes give it an imposing geometric presence.

This work was painted by the Irish-American artist Sean Scully in 1987. Scully moved from England to America in 1975 and maintained studios in London and New York simultaneously thereafter, taking American citizenship in 1983. He has said that this painting has ‘a rather ironic title because it refers to something which doesn’t exist, not in the world as it is today’ (quoted in Cork 2003, p.234). The paint in A Happy Land has been laid on thickly using wide brushes and the surface is glossy and opaque. Strongly directional brushstrokes are visible, applied lengthways along each stripe in a way that adds to a sense of vertical and horizontal movement in the painting.

The warm, earthy tones of A Happy Land may represent a symbolic, painterly response to places visited by Scully at this time, including California and Mexico (both of which he visited multiple times in 1987). The art critic Richard Cork has seen this painting as a visual representation of personal and political reconciliations: ‘the expatriate Scully, well-placed to be conscious of the tragic divisions beleaguering the world, persists in attempting to overcome barriers and bring even the most disparate elements into a convincing pictorial whole’ (Cork 2003, pp.234–5). The use of a smaller canvas inserted into a larger form in this painting is a common motif in Scully’s work – one that the artist calls the ‘inset technique’ (see ‘Biography’,, accessed 11 June 2015) – and can be seen in another painting in Tate’s collection, White Window 1988 (Tate T05724).

A Happy Land was produced when Scully had moved from the grid-like format had dominated many of his paintings in the 1970s to a separation of horizontal and vertical lines. It shows how stripes became characteristically thickened and emboldened in Scully’s work of the mid-1980s, moving away from the thinner lines of earlier works such as Fort #2 1980 (Tate T07161). The glossy surface of A Happy Land is also important to a more physical and emotional reading of this work and shows the move Scully had made against the strict formalism that dominated his practice and that of his contemporaries during the 1970s. In line with this, Scully has often emphasised the materiality of his canvases and the process of their making, stating in 1994 that: ‘the stripe provides the direction and the shape. Therefore, the way it’s painted has to do really with giving you a kind of sexuality, an identity, a physicality’ (quoted in Rifkin 1995, p.75).

Scully’s work bears the influence of earlier twentieth-century formalism and minimalism, with Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and Mark Rothko (1903–1970) acting as pervasive influences on his painting. In 1994 Scully explained his attraction to Rothko’s art in particular:

What Rothko did was to make something that was as monumental as possible and fill it up with a kind of paraphrased deep emotion that was in the old master paintings. But it was incredibly reduced and elemental too. That was what I try to do in my own work.
(Quoted in Rifkin 1995, p.35.)

A Happy Land attains monumentality and intense emotion through scale and reduced pictorial means. Scully also regards the reduced lines in his work as a link to the classical tradition, stating that: ‘the stripes are part of the large structures that are what represent us and our culture for all time. You see these structures first in Cimabue, Giotto and Masaccio’ (quoted in Rifkin 1995, p.44).

In 2007 Scully returned to the theme of this painting, producing a watercolour entitled A Happy Land Barcelona (private collection) in response to the city in which he has kept an additional studio since 1994.

Further reading
Ned Rifkin, Sean Scully, London 1995, reproduced p.44.
Maurice Poirier, Sean Scully, Manchester, Vermont 1997, reproduced p.109.
Richard Cork, New Spirit, New Sculpture, New Money, New Haven 2003, pp.234–5, reproduced p.234.

Jo Kear
June 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

Although Scully has said that this painting is about ‘a land that doesn’t exist’, the warm colours and balanced composition have been linked to his brief stay in California during the mid-1980s. ‘I needed my work to grow, to be less overtly physical and more intensely emotional and psychological’, he has said. The painting consists of three separate panels, with two C-shaped canvases enclosing the central square.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The work consists of three separate paintings which are secured together with two 90 mm metal bolts along each of their common edges. The central square with the red and deep green stripes makes up one canvas, and the yellow and black vertical bands make up the other two. Each of these paintings is on a C shaped canvas and they are joined at the central vertical line. The support of each painting consists of a single piece of heavy-weight linen fabric, attached to a rigid strainer with wire staples at their rear edges. All three strainers are made by 'Nadle'. The outer two are very complicated structures and consist of eight basic members with four additional reinforcement pieces. The six corner joints are turn-buckle joints and all cross-over joints are half lapped and secured by glue (probably a PVA) and screws. In addition to the stretcher bars there are further strips of wood used as reinforcements to the structure and which are glued to the front of the stretcher bars. The inner square strainer has a much simpler construction with four outer members, two cross members and four additional reinforcements across the corners.

The stretched pieces of canvas were first prepared with a layer of animal glue, which extends around most of the tacking edges, followed by the application of an even layer of a grey oil ground, which falls slightly short of the animal glue size. Although none of the layers have been analysed, an inscription of the back of the central canvas reads 'glue size, lead ground, oil'. The ground therefore probably consists of lead white and a black pigment dispersed in oil. Interestingly the ground of the central painting is a much lighter grey to that of the outer paintings.

Once the ground had dried the paint layers were applied. This was done using fairly wide brushes, in several superimposed layers so that the overall thickness of the paint is high and the canvas texture is completely obscured. The paint is generally of high gloss and opaque, so the colours tend not to be affected by those beneath them, although the deep green does appear slightly transparent. At the borders of each stripe it is possible to make out most of the underlayers, and even the grey ground in certain places. The paint was applied with a combination of wet-on-dry and wet-in-wet techniques and has left strongly directional brush-marking in the paint. This is usually parallel to the direction of the stripes, apart from the vertical red and green stripes, where there is also evidence of some horizontal brush marking presumably from an under layer.

None of the paintings have been varnished and the work is not framed. The back of the central canvas is signed Scully 87 with a lean black material. The piece is in an excellent condition with no signs of any deterioration in the paint films and the rigid strainers are still providing sound support.

Tom Learner
November 1997


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