FOLLOWING the death of John Byrne last month, Humza Yousaf, a First Minister, declared Scotland had “lost a cultural icon”. The Times said that “as an icon, he was a casually great one, with a self-effacing manner”.

The National listed his job description: “Painter, playwright, screenwriter, draughtsman, printmaker, muralist, book illustrator, set designer, costume designer, record cover designer, fashion icon.” To that list might have been added: wit. 

John Byrne’s plays, clothing and self-portraits evinced a knowing sense of humour. His face was a work of art. Beneath the extravagant beard, a silk cravat topped off country-set tweeds. 

But clothes did not maketh the man. Art did. He was a cultural polymath, a tornado of creative force.

Though his first love was painting – the Fine Art Society called him “one of the most inventive and versatile of all Scotland’s modern artists” – it was as a playwright and screenwriter that he achieved most fame.

And he achieved that by staying true to his working-class roots, most notably the unlikely creative fulcrum of Ferguslie Park, a Paisley council estate that, for a time, became a byword for deprivation. Luckily, kids don’t do bywords. 

John Patrick Byrne was born into an Irish Catholic family in Paisley on January 6, 1940. His mother Alice (née McShane) was a cinema usherette, his father Patrick an unskilled labourer turned newspaper vendor.

Later in life, John discovered he was the product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and her father. 

Devastating news and unsurprisingly, at first Byrne was discombobulated by it. But he engaged his inner stoic: it is what it is. Perhaps it even made him “special”. 

Alas, it may – Byrne came to believe – have affected his mother’s mental health in the end.

When John was 10, the family moved to the aforementioned “Feegie” estate, “the blessing on my entire life”. War was over, optimism rife, the buildings looked nice at first. Better than the old slums.

Life at home was good too. His parents encouraged his interest in art and took in a remarkable 27 newspapers and magazines a week. 

Passed on exams
John enjoyed regular visits to Paisley Museum and Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery. He didn’t enjoy St Mirin’s Academy so much, and left without sitting any exams.

Then came the fantastic career move into the “technicolour hellhole” that later provided the inspiration for arguably his most famous work. Young Byrne spent a year in the slab room (or grinding workshop) at Elderslie-based carpet maker AF Stoddard, mixing dye for designers.

But he was barely in the door before he started looking for an escape. Which was proved by Glasgow Art School. Though the world was not yet his oyster, while there he won a scholarship to spend a year in Perugia, Italy, taking in too Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi (Giotto, with Magritte, being a great influence). 

On his return to Scotland, he married Alice Simpson, a fellow art student, with whom he had two children.

After a spell in STV’s graphics department, he returned to Stoddard’s as a designer. Doubtless more satisfyingly, he designed jackets for Penguin Books and record sleeves for Gerry Rafferty, a Paisley buddy (The Beatles also approached him to design the cover of the White Album. They decided against, but in 1980 it was used for the Beatles Ballads compilation).

In 1967, John duped the Portal Gallery in London into believing that a faux-naif painting of a man holding flowers and a straw had been the work of his father Patrick, a self-taught, retired miner aged 72, who lived in a hut on a beach and had another 50 works to his name.

The gallery bought it, and so John’s first artistic success was in the name Patrick Byrne. 

When John confessed the deception, nobody really cared. The work was good, the joke kinda admirable.

Giving it some welly
BYRNE then went totally legit, becoming a designer for Billy Connolly’s Great Northern Welly Boot Show in 1972 and, the following year, for John McGrath’s 7:84 company, touring community centres with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

Inspired to scribble himself, he produced his first play, Writer’s Cramp, a “satire on the creative lifestyle”, which became a hit at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe (audience members included Billy Connolly and Sean Connery). 

In the play (featuring three 7:84 actors: Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett), the Nitshill Writing Circle celebrates the life of its literary mentor, Francis Seneca McDade. 

Cramp paved the way for The Slab Boys, first of a trilogy that included Cuttin’ A Rug and Still Life (with a coda, Nova Scotia, later making a quartet). Based loosely on Byrne’s experience at AF Stoddard, and premiering at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre between 1978 and 1982, the trilogy chronicled with ribald wit the lives of Phil, Spanky and sundry characters who crossed their paths.

The Traverse said the works, with dialogue in the vernacular, marked a “world-changing moment for Scottish theatre”. 

More acclamation followed with Tutti Frutti, a six-part BBC drama about the Majestics, an ageing rock ‘n’ roll band on a “silver jubilee” tour of provincial Scotland. The show won six Baftas and made stars of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson.

John made his partner Tilda Swinton appear against her better inclinations in his next great BBC Scotland success, country and western six-parter Your Cheatin’ Heart. 

Tilda was reportedly unsure about television, but the gal did good, as did Scots John Gordon Sinclair and Ken Stott.

Throughout this, John still painted. Several of his works hang in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, including portraits of the aforementioned Coltrane, Connolly and Swinton.

The Herald:

Facing the past
LAST year, a retrospective was held at Kelvingrove. It included 42 self-portraits, reportedly the most ever displayed at one time. 

The exhibition, wrote Mark Brown in The National, “proved … that Byrne had no one signature style” but deployed an “extraordinary range of aesthetics”.

His prolific output ranged from storyboards to tenement murals, and he’d one word for “conceptualisation” in art: “bollocks”. Emily Walsh, director of the Fine Art Society, said: “Running through all of John’s work is the outsider, either as a lone figure, or a fragment of society.”

Byrne wore the outsider badge with pride: “I’m on the outside and I don’t want to be on the inside.” 

He died peacefully on November 30, aged 83, with his wife Jeanine by his side.