John Byrne:‘King’s theatre mural probably my last’

HE IS one of Scotland’s most renowned and versatile artists - whose latest work is set to dazzle thousands of festival-goers over the next few weeks.
John Byrne pictured with the mural on the roof of the King's Theatre. Picture: Toby WilliamsJohn Byrne pictured with the mural on the roof of the King's Theatre. Picture: Toby Williams
John Byrne pictured with the mural on the roof of the King's Theatre. Picture: Toby Williams

But John Byrne reckons he will never be asked to paint another theatre mural after completing his work for the King’s in Edinburgh.

Byrne - best known for the cult 1980s TV series Tutti Frutti and the Slab Boys trilogy of plays - said he would “jump at the chance” at another commission - but felt it was highly unlikely he would be approached.

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Paisley-born Byrne revealed he did not even take his coat off after returning from a meeting to discuss the project at the King’s before starting work on his design for the 107-year-old cultural landmark.

His swirling “celestial” scene - partly inspired by the famous “all the world’s a stage” monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It - has taken five weeks to paint inside the domed roof of the famous auditorium.

It features a black harlequin carrying the sun through the clouds and a flame-haired woman draped in a star-cloth banner pushing the moon through the sky.

The public will get a chance to see the artist and playwright’s mural for the first time on Saturday at a performance of the Edinburgh International Festival play Metamorphosis.

Byrne, a regular attendee at the King’s, told The Scotsman: “I thought something had gone wrong somewhere when they asked me to do it, but I was delighted when they did.

“It was a bold decision and I think there should be more of this kind of thing. It was common sense and pretty inspirational for the King’s to do this, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

“I’d agree to do another one, but I don’t think I’ll never get asked again, it’s as simple as that. I’d jump at the chance if anyone did want one, though.

“I one did one other series after Tutti Frutti, Your Cheatin’ Heart, and that was the end of my career in television.”

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Byrne studied at Glasgow School of Art and his career has seen him design album covers for Gerry Rafferty and the Beatles, as well as portraits of Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane.

Byrne’s mural, or freso, has become his biggest surviving work, although he did paint a massive mural on the gable end of a tenement building in Partick, in Glasgow, in the 1970s, before it was knocked down.

Byrne was personally invited to work on the project by the Festival City Theatres Trust, which decided to commission a new mural as part of a £2.6 million restoratio of the main auditorium. He was chosen because of his “unique status as an artist and dramatist.”

Byrne added: “This is the first time I’ve actually seen it from downstairs.

“I’d only previously seen it up close on top of the scaffolding that was up in the theatre.

“It’s wonderful to see it complete and you can’t miss it when you come in the theatre now.

“It’s very like the original design I produced, in fact it’s almost a perfect a copy of it, but transferred to a much bigger scale.

“It was as big as I could make it at home. I stuck two pieces of paper together for the original design.

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“I hadn’t even taken my jacket off when I started as soon as I got in from the meeting about the project.

“I started off with the girl. I had no idea what I was going to do and it just grew from there. I can’t really explain what my working methods are, I just do it. It all comes from the head.”

Meanwhile Duncan Hendry, the theatre’s chief executive, said plans for another phase of refurbishment of the upper circle and the backstage areas would be pursued over the next years.

He told The Scotsman: “It will probably be another two or three years before the next phase gets underway, we are just preparing the brief for the work at the moment and we’ll have to get the funding in place.

“With the way we book shows, there is quite a long lead time for any refurbishment work, so we have to plan it well in advance. The next phase will also cost a bit more as well.

“Our aim is to get both the King’s into the best possible shape that we can, to make sure they are fully accessible and that they surpass the expectations of our customers.”