John Byrne was born in Glasgow in 1940. He was brought up and educated a Catholic. At seventeen he started work as a ‘slab boy’ mixing dyes for a firm of carpet manufacturers in Paisley in what he describes as a ‘technicolour hell hole’.
John studied painting at Glasgow School of Art from 1958 – 1963 and was hugely encouraged by their strong tradition of figurative painting.
Art schools in the nineteen sixties still had life drawing, painting and still life classes at their core and John Byrne was considered a star pupil. He won a scholarship to Italy where he visited Assissi where he marvelled at Giotto’s frescoes, and at the paintings of Duccio and Cimabue . John returned from his travels a highly accomplished and confident young artist.
Byrne married in 1964 and had a son and then a daughter the following year. He worked as a graphic designer for Scottish TV and illustrated some book jackets. He returned to work for the carpet manufacturers, this time as a carpet designer. In 1967 Byrne sent some paintings in a rather primitive style to London’s Portal Gallery signing them ‘Patrick’ and claiming that they were by his father, a Glaswegian newspaper seller. This was partly to do with John’s amusement at inventing odd characters, and also thinking that a gallery which at the time exhibited self taught artists might not be interested in work by a highly skilled art school trained painter. He was wrong! Portal exhibited his work with great success.
From the early seventies John Byrne’s biography reflects his diverse talents, as a designer of theatre sets and record covers. He made an animated film. His first play ‘Writer’s Cramp’ (1977) was followed by ‘ The Slab Boys in’(1978)and won him the Evening tandard’s most promising playwright award. In 1983 there was a New York production of ‘The Slab Boys’ with Sean Penn, Val Kilmer and Kevin Bacon.
In 1986 John wrote the immensely successful television series ‘Tutti Frutti’starring Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson. This was followed by another series ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ with Tilda Swinton. In 1993 John’s play about the two Scottish painters ‘Colquhoun and McBride’ was put on to great acclaim.
He has designed record covers for Donovan, The Beatles, Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly. Singersongwriter Rafferty’s song Patrick is written about Byrne (the lyrics begin: “Patrick my primitive painter of art/You will always and ever be near to my heart”), and the pair co-wrote several songs together His work is held in major collections in Scotland and abroad. Several of his paintings hang in The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, the museum of Modern Art and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.
In 2001 he was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for services to literature and the theatre but returned it in protest at the British Government’s joining forces with the US Administration’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
In 2004 he was made an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy and a full member in 2007. Byrne is an Honorary Fellow of the GSA, the RIAS, an Honorary Member of the RGI and has Honorary Doctorships from the universities of Paisley, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Strathclyde. He lives in Nairn in the Highlands.