John Byrne RSA 1940-2023


Born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, John Byrne was one of the most inventive and contrary artists working in modern Scotland. Both stylistically and in terms of subject matter his work fizzes off in all directions, always however underpinned by technical mastery. He is probably more widely known for his work in the theatre and television, particularly The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti. As a painter he is quite without parallel. As his friend Robbie Coltrane wrote in 2000 of Byrne's sketches: 'if I could draw like that I would give up everything else in my life'.


John’s formal life as an artist began aged 18 when he entered Glasgow School of Art. His mother said he started drawing in his pram. A year before entering the art school, he started at A. F. Stoddart & Co in Paisley - a “Technicolour hell hole” - as a “slab boy”. Much of what was to come, visually and literally, drew on what John observed there. 


John returned to the carpet factory in 1966 during which time he secured an exhibition - and his passport out of factory life - at the Portal Gallery, London under the pseudonym “Patrick”. Having passed himself off as a self-taught naïf, he was given an exhibition. The dream-like images that made up the show met with success. His ruse was uncovered and from here he went on to design record covers for The Beatles, Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty; and to co-write songs with the latter.


From the early 1970s John diversified into writing, designing and directing stage and screen productions: Writer's Cramp (1977) and then a story of three workers in a Paisley carpet factory who dream of escaping to pursue a life in rock and roll in The Slab Boys (1978). In 1986 he wrote the cult television series Tutti Frutti, starring Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson, which tells the story of the silver jubilee tour of the rock band The Majestics.


This was followed by Your Cheatin' Heart - a comedy of Glasgow life set to a backdrop of country and western music. Perhaps because of the immense success of these productions his prodigious talent as an artist was temporarily over-shadowed. He didn’t stop, however, but continued instead to design theatre sets and costumes.


In the decades that followed an extensive iconography unfolded amounting, in some cases, to a kind of pictorial autobiography. Paintings of 1950s Ferguslie Park - Feegie - captured what was once an invention, the “teenager”, as this strange new being emerged in the artist’s own youth. In his Underwood Lane series, the Teddy Boys who loiter are reminiscences of his own past. These pictures often referenced filmic and theatrical worlds, their backdrops lit like stage-sets. Nocturnal themes abounded: moonlit woods; the streets of 1950s Paisley; the self-examining artist, alone and wreathed in cigarette smoke. In a finely balanced act, he pulled together the macabre and humour.


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