John Byrne: too busy to yearn for his glory days

Byrne stands beside a photograph of him taken by David Eustace. Picture: Neil Hanna
Byrne stands beside a photograph of him taken by David Eustace. Picture: Neil Hanna
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WHO ever thought up that conceptual art is a total genius says John Byrne

I wonder, as I leave John Byrne to his breakfast scone, if everyone, man and woman, falls a little in love with him when they meet him for the first time. There’s something about the dapper, beardy polymath – a combination of gentleness and strength, that deep, reverberating bass voice (probably the result of smoking since he was seven – SEVEN!) and ready chuckle at life’s absurdities.

This is Byrne’s year. Aged 74, he’s working harder than ever. The morning we meet he has been up since 4am painting a private commission. The piece will, he hopes, takes its place in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s retrospective of his work this summer. “It doesn’t cover the entire canon,” he says, “because there’s stuff we cannae get. I only have room for 50. Originally it was only going to be 25, in that wee room to the left. But they capitulated and gave me a space upstairs – well, half a space.”

And he chuckles away. “F**k’s sake. Peter Doig had 200 paintings and he left Edinburgh when he was two. But I took it on the chin,” he adds generously.

But how to choose just 50 works that might represent such prodigious talents? He has, he says, completed in the region of 200 paintings since November alone. “I’m more prolific than ever. I cannae help doing it.”

It’s not just the painting that keeps him busy either. He will also be bringing his Caledonian reworking of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – Uncle Varick – to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre (whose elaborate domed ceiling he also painted, as it happens) next month; he’ll have two productions at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre; and there’s “something at the Citz, a musical I’m working on with Gareth Williams from Scottish Opera”.

He’s also doing one of the five-minute monologues for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Dear Scotland series. “You pick somebody from the Portrait Gallery and you do the monologue as if it’s them addressing the crowd about the referendum. Yes or no?

“I chose Burke and Hare, the resurrectionists,” he laughs. “That appeals to me.”

Byrne has spoken out before in favour of independence, but he muses: “I was, and then I wasnae. I don’t know where I am now. When they brought out the smoking ban – God, I wish they would just leave people alone. The smoking ban on stage in the theatre is disgraceful. If they did that to a novelist, if they said no Scottish novelist could mention smoking or cigarettes! They say it’s for the health and safety of fellow actors, but what about herbal cigarettes? In a well-ventilated theatre? And you’re not smoking for two-and-a-half hours.”

Some smokers are guilty smokers – they know they shouldn’t but they can’t help themselves, and they hate the weakness of will that represents. Byrne, however, is not one of those smokers. His first puff was of a Pasha, a lung-busting Turkish cigarette, when he was barely out of short trousers. “It was during the war and all children smoked then. Tiny tots smoked.”

Has he ever tried to give up? “Naw, naw,” he says. Why on earth would he? “I enjoy smoking. I roll my own now, and I only smoke tobacco which is unadulterated with stuff that’s used to keep the cigarette alight or whatever else. There are no chemicals; it’s just plain, good old-fashioned American Spirit rolling tobacco.”

He smokes seven or eight a day.

“I met an old teacher of mine from Glasgow School of Art – Margaret Grant – hadn’t seen her for years,” he says. “She was standing outside the Tron and she saw me and shouted: ‘John!’ She’s 95 and she once claimed to smoke 40 a day. But I found out she smokes 80 a day. She’s 95!”

Google John Byrne – a thing he would never do, since he won’t use a computer and certainly wouldn’t trust one even if he did – and you’ll find he’s best known for three things: Tutti Frutti – the much-loved, much-missed TV series from 1987 that starred Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson trussed up in silver foil teddy boy suits; The Slab Boys – set in a 1957 carpet factory (Byrne himself worked as a slab boy after graduating from art school); and for being the one-time partner of Tilda Swinton.

“It still says I live in Nairn,” he sighs, “and that was eight years ago. And you cannae take anything off the internet; all that misinformation never goes away. Why would you want any truck with that kind of stuff?”

For the record, Swinton and Byrne parted amicably long ago and share the care of their twins Honor and Xavier, who were born in 1997. Byrne is now living in Edinburgh with Jeanine Davies, a stage lighting designer. She’s the one with the computer, should anyone care to send Byrne an email. And he only got a mobile phone reluctantly when the children were young, just in case someone needed to contact him urgently.

“But I have no interest in social media. Twitter? It’s a total and absolute waste of your life. Why would you be f**king – oh sorry – twittering? People spend their whole day on Twitter. That’s the most stupid thing I’ve heard. Old people on Twitter. Young people on Twitter. What the bloody hell? You idle your time away. I don’t have the time to waste on Twitter.”

Is he nostalgic, I wonder, for simpler times, when these digital distractions were merely a twinkle in Bill Gates’s eye? “I’m not nostalgic at all,” he splutters, “not remotely. I live today, I work today, I’m interested in people who are alive and kicking.

“I remember a lot,” he adds. “I remember when it was a much better life for everybody. But I absolutely live for today. I get up in the morning, I sit and work, and that’s what I do.”

I wonder, then, if he might occasionally be frustrated that he is best known for old work – for Tutti Frutti and The Slab Boys – when the projects he’s so passionate about now go unnoticed?

“It doesnae bother me at all; I just accept that. Those things were milestones along the way – they were landmark occasions for me even before they went out, even before they were seen. I didn’t need the public acclaim at all, although that’s always very nice. There’s a whole lot of stuff I’ve done that’s not public – so many paintings – and nobody comments on them because they’re in private hands or not seen by very many people. It’s just one of these things.

“I have my own estimation of stuff I’ve done,” he adds. “It’s maybe regretful that some of it hasnae had the same acclaim, but I’m very lucky to have had TWO things I’m recognised for, in different mediums.”

He has no intention of making any concessions to his age either. On the contrary. “I’m fitter now than I’ve ever been. I’m working longer hours, through the night and into the early hours of the morning.

“If you find something you love in your life, you do it all your life,” he says. “So many people have never had the chance. Some people can’t wait to retire, then they just give up. You don’t get artists retiring. Lucian Freud died at 88, he was working every day, all hours. Writers, playwrights, everyone else, they go on forever doing the same thing. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. My mother claims that I was drawing in the pram.”

He was, he admits, a “different” child. Cerebral. He read a lot, drew a lot, listened to the wireless a lot. His father was a labourer; his mother a cinema usherette working at the Mosspark Picture House in Cardonald. “He was working at the shipyards – he was a hauder-on, the guy that held the heavy hammer behind the guy that was hammering in the red hot rivets. He was five feet one. A very quiet, very gentle man. The most contented man I ever met. I never heard him swear in his life.”

Byrne, I suggest, has inherited that gentleness. “Not entirely,” he laughs. “I got into lots of fights at school; lots and lots of fights. I’m not a violent person at all, but I used to enjoy a good scrap.”

He has always had a distinctive sense of style – a dapper way of dressing – since as far back as primary school. “I remember, I was about seven, and a couple of boys came to school with collars on their knitted jerseys and I desperately wanted one. I got on to my mum about it, and my grandmother got me a plaid jerkin – a blouson. It stood out.

“I was a teddy boy,” he adds. “The jacket came down to below your knees and the trousers were so tight at the bottom you couldnae get them on and your mother had to help you pull them off. And we had that swagger.

“I’ve always been curious about style. But I only ever buy clothes I like. I’m not trying to be up to date at all.”

His earliest introduction to art was the iconic imagery in the Catholic Church; all crucifixion and bleeding hearts. “It was all drama and passion, which is why I loved it. That’s why, I think, so many Jewish people and so many Catholic people are in the theatre, because they have that mass, where the focus is on the altar of transformation.”

He gave up going to church for a while, but is now attending again with Davies. “My faith is very wobbly,” he confesses. “I swither and sway. Richard Dawkins intrigues me. Some days I wake up and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was absolutely bugger all after this life?’

“Everything you do is an attempt to justify your existence. People ask me, ‘Why do you paint yourself?’ Well, I’m handy anyway, and I’m asking the question, ‘Why are we here?’ Every intelligent person asks that question.”

If justifying your existence could be measured in creative and financial success, Byrne could stop painting himself tomorrow. He has designed a record cover for The Beatles’ compilation album Ballads, exhibits all over the world, and his works regularly sell for around £30,000. But last year he took the revolutionary step of selling some of his pieces for knockdown prices – between £40 and £150 – to young people and students. They were snapped up within ten minutes, of course, and he now plans to do the same thing at each of his shows.

“I’m hoping other people will follow my example,” he says. “No bugger will, but I’m setting an example to make stuff accessible to people.”

The art world, he says, is elitist and manufactured. “There are people who cannae draw who claim to be artists. Jeff Koons was on Radio 4’s Front Row the other day and he was talking like an artist, but he never touches a thing. Whoever thought up that conceptual art is a total genius.”

Don’t buy what people tell you you should buy, he says. Buy something you love. “Don’t ever buy for investment. If it increases in value, you’re lucky, but if it doesn’t you have a wonderful thing that gives you joy and pleasure. That’s the only way you can ever buy.”


Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley

Dear Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 24 April-3 May

Uncle Varick, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 7-10 May (

John Byrne, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 14 June-14 September (

An adaptation of The Three Sisters, Tron Theatre Glasgow, 30 September-18 October; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 21-25 October

Colquhoun & McBride, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 28 October-8 November