Interview: John Byrne set to bring two shows to 2014 Edinburgh Art Festival
The polymath artist on why he had a life's worth of artistic inspiration by the age of fifteen and why he'll never retire
This article is from 2014.
Whether he’s writing for the stage, making pop videos or painting self-portraits, John Byrne does it all with a twinkle in his eye. Neil Cooper meets a man who refuses to slow down
It’s sometimes easy to forget that John Byrne was a painter before he became a playwright. While he has earned a living as an artist since 1967, only latterly, it seems, has the Paisley-born author of The Slab Boys Trilogy and TV comedy drama Tutti Frutti received acclaim for a body of paintings equally rich in baroque, multi-hued narrative.
With Byrne’s recently unveiled mural for the auditorium ceiling of Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre cementing the importance of his criss-crossing relationship between stage and canvas, two major exhibitions this summer should remind audiences of the instinctive and audaciously good-humoured life which possess Byrne’s paintings. Sitting Ducks is a collection of some 50 largely unseen works at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, but the 20-odd new pieces that make up Dead End at Bourne Fine Art should reveal where Byrne is currently at.
Sitting in Edinburgh’s Filmhouse bar, the now 74-year-old Byrne appears to be in the rudest of health and even ruder humour. His checked three-piece suit and elaborate beard may give Byrne the air of a 1950s Soho dandy, but such apparel can’t hide the baritone lilt of a voice born in the rough Ferguslie Park area of Paisley. Nor does it disguise the twinkle of mischief that frequently lights up his piercing blue eyes. It’s a twinkle that’s the product of a misspent youth during the dawn of rock’n’roll, when the austere black-and-white post-war world turned technicolour. The painting that gave Dead End its title is a giveaway.
‘I painted a big watercolour, which is twice the size of this table,’ Byrne says, nodding at where we’re sat. ‘I had no idea what I was gonnae do, and I painted two teddy boys in big close-up, with exaggerated hair, and then I put in a cinema, the Astoria, behind them. Outside there’s a parked car; it’s my Riley from 1957 and there’s a guy dancing on the roof of it, and people running across the edge of the cinema roof. There’s a guy in a close nearby who’s about to stamp on a cat that’s looking out on us, blissfully unaware that there’s a family up the stairs watching him; and there’s a guy on a motorbike under the bridge that they’re standing on. The film that’s showing is Dead End, which was a Broadway stage play for which they built a huge gable-end on the stage. It was later made into a film with Humphrey Bogart where the Dead End Kids became the Bowery Boys; they were our heroes in the 1950s.’
This impressionistic autobiographical streak is key to Byrne’s work, dating right back to The Slab Boys in which lead character Phil McCann was a teddy boy who, like Byrne, worked in Stoddard’s carpet factory in Paisley while trying to get into art school. ‘I lived the life of a teddy boy in a complete slum, and it was so exciting,’ recalls Byrne. ‘Every new day was a total and utter joy. Writers use their own life, but very few painters do. They’ll use part of their psyche and try things out, but it’s no’ that entertaining. I want to entertain myself, and keep myself alive, thinking and constantly surprised.’
Other paintings in Dead End feature ‘a whole lot of narratives, which you’ll have to decipher, because I don’t start off with a theme. If you plan too much, you cannae wait to finish the bloody thing, whereas if you’re exploring it as you go along and things are revealing themselves, it becomes very entertaining, and you cannae wait to see what happens next. I trust my unconscious to do all that. It’s a good thing not to have any thoughts in your head, and just be knackered the whole time, because that’s when your unconscious takes over, and you’re just the robot who does it. It sounds fanciful, but it’s true.’
Byrne’s conversation is unguarded, discursive, occasionally scurrilous, and frequently peppered with little gurgles of laughter. As a child, Byrne lived in a permanent state of wonder that transcended his surroundings, even as he sought out worlds beyond them. Exposed to art at an early age, he fell in love with Titian and Salvador Dalí’s ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross’, which he saw in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Byrne lapped up the works of the great masters serialised through the Daily Express and spent hours in his local library.
‘And there was life itself,’ he remembers, ‘because you were playing all the time, inventing things, and the wireless was a great pictorial aid. I remember hearing Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent, which was absolutely spellbinding. My life was crammed with all this stuff. Then there was the life around me. We knew everyone in the entire street, and every one of them was a phenomenon. You didnae need to write anything. It was ready-made. Then when I was about 14 or 15, I had this unformed and unconscious realisation that I had all the information I needed to last me an entire lifetime. I couldnae put it into words, but my heart leapt with joy at the prospect of that. I was delighted and thrilled and astonished on a daily basis.’
After studying at Glasgow School of Art, Byrne had his first show in 1962 at Blythswood Square Gallery. It would be another five years, however, before he would find real acclaim, under the assumed name of Patrick, with works he somewhat fancifully claimed to be by his naive painter father. Byrne’s mischief worked, and in 1968 his next show was photographed by David Bailey for a piece written by Marina Warner, ‘who took me round the corner and bought me a packet of fags. I was enthralled.’
Byrne painted album sleeves for Donovan and his Paisley contemporary, Gerry Rafferty, and moved into stage design, creating Billy Connolly’s banana boots for The Great Northern Welly Boot Show in 1972, and the pop-up book set for John McGrath’s 7:84 production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil a year later.
‘The only time I could get to meet any other playwrights was by designing their shows,’ Byrne says. ‘I always went to the theatre. I slept through every production at the Citz, because I was always so knackered from painting. But I took it in by osmosis. They were always doing such wonderful things, a lot of which I couldn’t get a handle on because they were so obscure, but they were always great shows, with Philip Prowse’s design. They were never laid-back or unimportant. I got a great education at the Citz.’
Byrne’s first play, Writer’s Cramp, was a hit at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe. It was The Slab Boys, however, which helped redefine Scottish theatre, with Byrne’s rich, pop culture-derived dialogue delivered with a music hall flourish. ‘I’m blessed that I can do the two things that entertain me,’ he says. ‘People who don’t know me at all say, “don’t you think of retiring?” You mean, die?’
Beyond Dead End and Sitting Ducks, Byrne has several theatre projects pending, and has just directed a video for American band Merchandise. Some new writing is also on the cards. ‘At the moment I’m all painted out,’ he says. ‘I’ve been painting morning till night seven days a week, and I need to give my mind and my imagination a break from all that visual stuff. But that won’t last. It’s when I’m working that I feel most alive.’
John Byrne: Dead End, Bourne Fine Art, Dundas Street, 0131 557 4050, until 30 Aug, Mon–Fri, 10am–6pm, Sat, 11am–4pm, free.
John Byrne: Sitting Ducks, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, 0131 624 6200, until 19 Oct, Fri–Wed, 10am–5pm (6pm in Aug), Thu, 10am–7pm, free.