HE HAS just completed one of his biggest works for one of the main venues at the Edinburgh International Festival, and now the National Galleries of Scotland has confirmed plans to honour John Byrne at next year’s Festival.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery will stage the biggest exhibition of his work, including classic images of Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane and Tilda Swinton, his former partner, as well as several self-portraits.
More than 50 portraits, from drawings to large-scale paintings, will be featured. The gallery already has several of his paintings on permanent display. Byrne will be speaking about the exhibition at the gallery’s “after-hours” Fringe event tonight, in conversation with author AL Kennedy.
Next year’s exhibition, which will feature work dating from the 1970s and is expected to run for several months, will be accompanied by a display of new work at the Bourne Fine Art Gallery in the New Town.
Byrne, who was born in Paisley, worked in a carpet factory before winning a place at Glasgow School of Art in 1958. His career did not take off until 1967, when he tricked the Portal Gallery in London into showing his work under the pseudonym of “Patrick” and pretended they were by his father, a newspaper seller at Glasgow Cross at the time.
By the 1970s, he was concentrating on album covers for artists including Connolly, The Beatles, Donovan and Gerry Rafferty, and then made his name as a playwright with the Slab Boys trilogy.
Byrne also had huge success in 1987 with Tutti Frutti, his Bafta-winning TV drama about a troubled Scottish rock ’n’ roll band, which made household names Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson.
Byrne’s TV follow-up, Your Cheatin’ Heart, starring Swinton, was not as well received when it was broadcast in 1990.
Byrne told The Scotsman: “The exhibition is a great opportunity to see a lot of this work, and it’s also the first time I’ve ever had an exhibition with the National Galleries.
“It’ll probably be the biggest exhibition of work I’ve had on since one that was held in Paisley when I turned 60.”
Byrne was asked to reopen the portrait gallery in Queen Street, when a multi-million-pound refurbishment was completed almost two years ago.
Gallery director Christopher Baker said: “We are delighted to be working closely with John Byrne on this exciting project for next summer.
“John is a great friend of the portrait gallery, and we are sure this show will be a huge draw for both fans of John’s artwork, and those who know him in one of his many other artistic guises.”
John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, added: “John Byrne … is an artist who has made such a massive and distinctive contribution to contemporary Scottish culture across a range of genres.”
This month, Byrne unveiled his ceiling mural at the King’s Theatre. His swirling “celestial” scene – partly inspired by the famous “all the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It – features a harlequin carrying the sun through the clouds and a flame-haired woman draped in a star-cloth banner pushing the moon through the sky.