John Byrne: I’ll die with brush in hand

John Byrne with one of the pieces from his Dead End exhibition, which opens in Edinburgh tomorrow. Picture: Ian GeorgesonJohn Byrne with one of the pieces from his Dead End exhibition, which opens in Edinburgh tomorrow. Picture: Ian Georgeson
John Byrne with one of the pieces from his Dead End exhibition, which opens in Edinburgh tomorrow. Picture: Ian Georgeson
JOHN BYRNE, one of Scotland’s most versatile and enduring artists, has unveiled a collection of the “darkest” material of his life for a show partly inspired by the prospect of his death.

Powerful images of mortality, violence and hunting all feature in the show of entirely new work by the 74-year-old, which opens in Edinburgh’s New Town tomorrow, and is entitled Dead End.

Byrne insists he did not set out to produce a themed exhibition for the Bourne Fine Art Gallery, which is staging the show for the next two months, insisting that much of the graphic imagery in the paintings came to him “out of the blue”.

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But he has spoken of his exhaustion after completing the last of the 24 paintings for the exhibition earlier this week, saying he has spent the past four years painting up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

He said much of the work for the show had come from “dredging” his subconscious.

Some of the imagery is inspired by Byrne’s Catholic upbringing, some by his home town of Paisley. Skeletons, gangland figures and a shadowy huntsman all feature prominently. He has a haunted look in one of the self-portraits, Big Selfie.

Byrne, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, said he had taken inspiration from his artistic heroes such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, describing them as “painting like demons” until the end, adding that he wanted to have a paintbrush in his hand when he passed away.

Another one of Scotland’s best-known artists of modern times, John Bellany, died in his studio, with his paintbrush in his hand last August at the age of 71, after insisting he wanted to keep working despite being seriously ill.

Byrne, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, is arguably best known for his stage and screen work, including The Slab Boys plays and hit TV comedy drama Tutti Frutti.

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Byrne told The Scotsman: “I started off with nothing at all for this show. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do, I just knew I had to do the work.

“I did all of the paintings in recent months, just finishing the last one the other night. I couldn’t have said at the outset what they would be about, but it became clear as the picture emerged.

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“I was so physically knackered, having spent the last four years painting show after show. I’ve not stopped at all.

“Death has been there in my work before, but it is definitely getting closer. You are only here for a short spell, a fleeting moment, and you don’t want that moment to drag. I look around at all these old guys doing nothing at all with their lives.

“Deliberately or otherwise, I am working harder than I’ve ever done. You want to go while you’re still working and you just drop the paintbrush.

“John Bellany was working away right until the end. All the painters I love, like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, worked like demons, they worked every day. Artists are just hobbyists if they don’t work every day.

“I’m not worried about getting old. I feel like I’m just coming into my prime as an artist.”

Byrne said he would also be repeating an initiative he launched at an Aberdeen gallery last year to encourage youngsters and students to be able to buy art.

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Six specially selected pieces in the exhibition will be available to buy for between just £20 and £100. The main pieces range in price from £9,000-£38,000.

Emily Walsh, director of Bourne Fine Art, said: “There is physical truth and sometime caricature in his self-portraits, but what he sees looking back at him we, the viewer, are never given to understand. Nor perhaps is the artist.

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“Dead End is a result of the artist’s introspection, producing something personal to Byrne: a vision of the outside, at once everyman and his own self.”

• John Byrne: Dead End is at Bourne Fine Art in Dundas Street from 4 July until 1 September.

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