Thursday, June 04, 2015

People and Stories

“You need to be detached to make great work
John Byrne

Arguably most widely known for his multi awarding winner plays and television series the Scottish writer/painter John Byrne is a figurative artist with an impressive list of exhibitions to his credit.

It was Byrne’s attendance in his late teens and early twenties at the Glasgow School of Art that became his ticket out of the notorious slum of Ferguslie Park, his home during his formative years. Although the streets of his youth have been the driving imperative of both his writing and painting. As he told the Independent Newspaper’s Hannah Duguid “My intellect was enriched by the background I came from. Everyone seemed more alive and all the streets were alive: morning noon and night…Every bit of information I ever needed came from there."

Like the subterfuge Byrne exercised to get his first London exhibition. As the story goes, The Portal Gallery was looking for naïve artists to which Byrne’s five years at art school was a definite impediment. Byrne created a work in the style required and attributed to his father who he claimed was a retired labourer, busker and newspaper seller who signed himself "Patrick". The gallery was suitably impressed and request more works for a solo exhibition which Byrne was happy to supply. When the truth came out, it was all a bit late for Byrne’s artistic career was off and running.

Apart from the exhibitions Byrne received commissions for album covers from popular bands and musicians of the day like the Beatles, Donavon and Gerry Rafferty. He also discovered theatre when commission to produce the stage settings for Billy Connelly’s The Great Northern Welly Boot Show.

Intrigued by the medium Byrne turned his hand to writing producing amongst others his semi-autobiographical trilogy in four parts The Slab Boys which he followed up with multi BAFTA winning television series Tutti Frutti about a has been Scottish rock ‘n roll band. This was followed by the folk music inspired Your Cheatin’ Heart.

A long term affair with the Hollywood actress Tilda Swinton that ended with vigorously denied rumors of a ménage à trois ensured Byrne’s name remained in the headlines. But throughout it all Byrne continued to work in his studio.

Although his style expanded from the naïve as he gained a reputation as skilled portraitist painting friends like the Scottish comedian Billy Connelly as well as numerous self-portraits. With work that often has illustrative overtones Byrne also produces works that tap into his story telling abilities whilst still reflecting his humble beginnings.

Even though he is now in his 70’s Byrne is still in the studio. As he told The Scotsman in 2014 ““I think I’m painting better than ever and I’m working harder than ever. I did around 120 paintings last year. They’re not dashed off. I work a 14-hour day, seven days a week.

Byrne’s latest exhibition A Matter of Life and Death is currently on show at London’s Fine Art Society Gallery until the 25th of June.

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