John Byrne was born on 6th of January 1940 in Paisley, birthplace of Alexander Wilson, Father of American Ornithology. Byrne grew up in Ferguslie Park housing scheme – at the time pretty much the worst slum in Europe and was educated at the city’s St Mirin’s Academy. He quit school in Fifth Year, prior to sitting his ‘Highers’ and, having failed to secure a job painting cinema posters with Mr Brown, Paisley’s only commercial artist, started work as a ‘slab boy’ mixing powder colour for the designers at A F Stoddard, carpet manufacturers in nearby Elderslie.
In 1958 Glasgow School of Art beckoned. Byrne was accepted for the First Year General Course – specialising in Drawing & Painting in his Third Year under the then Head of Painting, Willie Armour. The school still had life drawing, painting and still life classes at their core and John Byrne was considered a star pupil. In his final year at GSA he won the Bellahousten Award, the school’s most prestigious painting prize, and travelled to Italy, returning some six months later, a highly accomplished and confident young artist.
Following many a trudge around the galleries of London without anyone showing that much interest in his work, Byrne took the bull by the horns and sent a small picture of a man in a panama hat to Maifair’s Portal Gallery, claiming it to be the work of his father, a one-time Glasgow busker and at this particular time, a newspaper seller at Paisley Cross. The gallery asked to see more of ‘Patrick’s’ work. Byrne junior sat down and painted another half-dozen in the ‘naive’ style of the first – result, a one-man Mayfair show and instant acclaim.
From the early seventies John Byrne’s biography reflects his diverse talents, as a designer of theatre sets and record covers. He made an animated film. His first play ‘Writer’s Cramp’ (1977)was followed by ‘ The Slab Boys in’(1978)and won him the Evening Standard’s most promising playwright award. In 1983 there was a New York production of ‘The Slab Boys’ with Sean Penn, Val Kilmer and Kevin Bacon.In 1986 John wrote the immensely successful, six-time BAFTA award-winning television series ‘Tutti Frutti’starring Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson. This was followed by another series ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ with Tilda Swinton and countless other plays and films to the present day. He has designed record covers for Donovan, The Beatles, Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly. Singer-songwriter Rafferty’s song Patrick is written about Byrne (the lyrics begin: “Patrick my primitive painter of art/You will always and ever be near to my heart”), and the pair co-wrote several songs together
His work is held in major collections in Scotland and abroad. Several of his paintings hang in The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, the museum of Modern Art and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. In 2001 he was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for services to literature and the theatre but returned it in protest at the British Government’s joining forces with the US Administration’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. In 2004 he was made an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy and a full member in 2007.
Byrne is an Honorary Fellow of the GSA, the RIAS, an Honorary Member of the RGI and has Honorary Doctorships from the universities of Paisley, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Strathclyde. He lives in Nairn in the Highlands.