Why John Byrne was one of Scotland’s greatest artists

In an illustrious and successful career, he has mastered a variety of cultural genres as an actor, playwright, and screenwriter. He is also credited with numerous stage and television hits. In the last 60-plus years, he has created a catalog of creative works which have been incorporated into the Scottish cultural landscape and gained him international recognition. Byrne, who is now in his 80s, still paints and writes plays. His desire to create has not diminished.

The exhibit includes a variety of portraits, including self-portraits and figurative work, as well as illustrations, cartoons, and album covers. He has worked on all sizes and media, from thumbnail storyboarding up to full gable end murals in tenement buildings.

The show gave me unique insight into Byrne’s Scottishness, his approach to art and his dedication to it.

Beginnings humble

Byrne grew up in Ferguslie Park in Paisley. It is one of the poorest areas in Scotland. You would expect his work to reflect that. There is little evidence of trauma or darkness in Byrne’s artworks. In fact, they are often playful and joyful.

Byrne struggled as an artist to earn a living after leaving Glasgow School of Art in 1963. After a few more years, he created an alter-ego named “Patrick”. In London, he sent some primitive art to the Portal Gallery under this pseudonym. He claimed that it was his father’s work. The work was accepted in 1967 and displayed, which launched Byrne’s career as a professional artist down south.

In the 1970s, he developed his writing abilities to the point where his artistic output decreased, and he was fully immersed into the world of scriptwriting. In this period of transition, he used both visual images and written dialogue in a fascinating creative procedure where character ideas were first visually illustrated and then given time to develop and mature before becoming their unique voices.

The success of Writer’s CrampSlab Boys, and Tutti Frutti in 1987 and 1990 – based upon his own experience working in a 1950s carpet factory – interrupted a career in art that had been developing for over 20 years. He continued to create powerful graphics and illustrations for his television and theatre works.

Polymath talent

What can be said about this exceptional talent? Byrne’s work is a symbolic one, whose exploration of human experience is at the heart of his scripts as well as his visual art.

John Byrne with Tilda, his former partner.

Early in the 1980s, Byrne and a group called the New Glasgow Boys (referring to the influential modernist painters of the late-19th century, the Glasgow Boys) achieved international success for their figurative paintings, building on Byrne’s artistic output that explored the Scottish working class psyche.

He is an architect of narratives that explore deeply human characters, their relationships, and specific times in history from a Scottish perspective. For example, the Slab Boys, the working class characters, and the rough-and-ready Majestics in Tutti Frutti.

We are given a glimpse into his deeply personal journey through his portraits, where he struggles to understand himself as well as the personalities that sit for him. His paintings are often humorous and full of irreverence and playfulness, especially when it comes to his image.

Hands Up self-portrait. John Byrne is the author (no reuse).

The 40 self-portraits that dominate the exhibition are large-scale, set in cityscapes or seascapes. They use a variety of mediums and almost always show him with his trademark roll-up and a curl of smoking hanging in the sky. His earlier works s,uch as Self Portrait with Red Palette, 1975) c,an be serious, sad a,nd then l,ater, full of humor where he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In his more recent work, like Big Selfie 2014, Byrne reflects on mortality and the image of himself as an aging artist.

Byrne treats his sitters in his portraits with different levels of respect, from the comical and affectionate to the more serious and respectful. His varied media, such as oil paint on flat surfaces, pastels, watercolours, and prints, reflect this. Leonardo’s sketches are similar to the Conte crayon drawings he did of his daughters Celia Asleep and Rebecca.

One of Byrne’s many album covers. John Byrne/Parlophone Records.

Early artworks were inspired by his love of R’n’B, oand ck’n’roll and his friendship with musicians and actors. These influences led him to create album covers, paintings, portraits, and caricatures.

His covers include the Beatles Ballads album as well as work for Donovan was a major influence, leading Byrne to paint watercolour studies like the Burnt Orange LA in 1971 and large-scale paintings of black musicians that were displayed upon his return.

 

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