John Byrne's 'pop-up book' Cheviot stage set to go on display at Dundee V&A

His paintings, album covers, plays and stage designs have made him one of Scotland's most popular cultural figures.

John Byrne was reunited with his famous pop-up book stage set for The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil at the National Library today.
John Byrne was reunited with his famous pop-up book stage set for The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil at the National Library today.

Now artist and writer John Byrne is to be honoured by Dundee’s new museum of design when it displays a huge “pop-up book” he created for the groundbreaking play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil 45 years ago.

Byrne admitted he had thought his hand-painted sets, which will be going on display at the £80 million V&A Dundee attraction when it opens in September, had been “lost forever” before discovering they had been secured for the nation several years ago.

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His backdrops are going on permanent display in Dundee following years of restoration work carried out on after the book’s acquisition following the death of the play's writer, John McGrath.

A 3D model of John Byrne's Cheviot stage set has been created by photographing each page of his book from thousands of different angles.

The National Library of Scotland, which has agreed to a 25-year loan, has also carried out an extensive 3D mapping exercise on the biggest book in its 27 million strong collection. The sets have been photographed from thousands of different angles to ensure every detail can be viewed online.

Measuring more than three by four metres when fully open, and standing over two metres tall, the cardboard sets were famously transported on top of the 7:84 theatre company's van as it toured village halls and community centres around the country in 1973.

The play's original cast of actors, who included Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett, would turn the pages of the book during the show, which tackled issues the exploitation and economic changes in the Highlands from the 18th century to the North Sea oil boom of the time.

The original stage set will be going on display in the city's waterfront museum four years after a critically-acclaimed revival by Dundee Rep of the play, which was staged just two years after McGrath's theatre company was formed, and would go on to become the writer's best-known work.

John Byrne was reunited with his pop-up book for the classic play at the National Library ahead of it going on display in Dundee in September.

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Born in Paisley in 1940, Byrne is equally well known for his theatre work as his paintings, particularly The Slab Boys trilogy. He also created the TV dramas Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart for BBC Scotland.Byrne admitted that the construction of the "Cheviot" book, which has five scenes include a Highland landscape, a croft, a burn-out cottage, a poppy-strewn war memorial and a Native American tipi, had been a process of "trial and error."

Byrne said: "I remember making it in the basement of the old Society of Lady Artists Club on Blythswood Square.

"I just thought it was going to be dumped in a scrap-head after the show. It's not the kind of thing that someone would keep and put in a spare room.

"I actually thought it had been lost forever. I think it was maybe kept in someone's garage for years.

"I'm delighted and thrilled it has managed to stand up to the ravages of time, especially after being taken around the country on the roof of a Transit van.

"I didn't go on the tour myself, I think I only ever saw the show once, but it was wonderful.

"It was like a ceilidh and a play combined, but it was very hard-hitting - John McGrath didn't soft-pedal with any of his political views.

"He thought that people who couldn't go to theatre or didn't live anywhere near a theatre deserved to see theatre so he decided to take it to them."

Shona Hunter, paper conservator at the National Library, part of the team which has spent years restoring the "Cheviot" set, said: "When the book arrived here after we acquired it in 2009 it was in quite poor condition.

"The painted surfaces were actually in quite good condition, because they had not been exposed to a lot of light and and there weren't high levels of fading, but structurally the mechanics of the book the spine and pop-ups, were quite badly damaged. It's actually gone through several rounds of conservation since it's been in our care.

"We've done some cleaning of the pages, using a special conservation vacuum cleaner, to get rid of some light surface dirt, but wen some of their knots and bumps are part of the provenance of the work. We didn't want to completely renovate it and make it new."

Philip Long, director of V&A Dundee, said: "John Byrne’s striking pop-up book is a fantastic example of imaginative design.

"Not only was it made to be portable on the long trips between towns and villages across the Highland and Islands, it also added to the magic of the play. It's painted like a children’s book, which deliberately creates quite a juxtaposition with the hard-hitting subject matter of the play.”

John Scally, chief executive of the National Library, said "It will be difficult to let this important part of our collection go after years of careful restoration. But that is the whole point of preservation – to enable future generations to enjoy items of great national and cultural significance.

"We can’t think of a more fitting place for the stage-set to be on display than V&A Dundee. It's really important for us that it is available to be viewed by the public.

"The pop-up book was obviously originally created with a temporary purpose in mind, but it has now been transformed into an item of great cultural significance, and one that is important to our national memory."