The Return of the Big Adventurer to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove

'Emma Thompson as Suzi Kettles from Tutti Frutti', 1985 86, watercolour, pen and ink, © John Byrne. All rights Reserved. DACS 2022
'Emma Thompson as Suzi Kettles from Tutti Frutti', 1985 86, watercolour, pen and ink, © John Byrne. All rights Reserved. DACS 2022

Title:
John Byrne: A Big Adventure

Times:
Mon - Sat, Thu: 10:00 - 17:00; Fri, Sun: 11:00 - 17:00

From: 27 May 2022

To: 18 Sep 2022

Venue:
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Argyle Street
Glasgow
Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
G3 8AG

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The scope of A Big Adventure is very big indeed. John Byrne has been the subject of substantial retrospective exhibitions before (John Byrne at 60, The Unsolved Artist in Paisley in 2000, and Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2014), however this is possibly the most diverse and comprehensive gathering-together of his works so far, brought from many public and private collections.

There is much to see here, from Byrne the Painter, Printmaker, Playwright, Screenwriter and Theatre Designer. John Patrick Byrne, born and brought up in Paisley, is now 82. This exhibition spans the decades of his varied career, from student work at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1960s, right up to the present day.

Located in Kelvingrove’s basement exhibition galleries, the show is divided into several distinct sections, reflecting the wide variety of kinds of work Byrne has done, and each area could take some time to view. Album covers; painted guitars; rock ‘n’ roll inspired paintings, and plays, and television shows; self portraits; family and other portraits; children’s stories; public art, it is all here. For a follower of Byrne’s painting and printmaking it may come to mind that while there is a lot on show here, he is famously prolific and has in fact painted and drawn so much more – but what has been accommodated here is a terrific selection.

There are several screen presentations and these merit viewing time too. In one film we hear family, friends, fellow artists and actors from his productions talk about the man and his work. ‘Byrne about Byrne’ is a BBC Arena production of 1988, and is a typically quirky autobiographical piece.

The exhibition can be viewed on an approximately chronological route, and so it starts with work from Byrne’s studies at the Glasgow School of Art (with an intermediate year at Edinburgh), and several masterful works from the travelling scholarship to Perugia that followed in 1963.

Then there are paintings from Byrne’s early post-Art School years – works shown from 1967 to 1969 at the Portal Gallery London, signed under the assumed name and identity of ‘Patrick’ (being his father’s name and the artist’s own middle name). The ‘Patrick’ paintings have a very distinct character, often featuring a central costumed child figure, ribbon flags, glass orbs, animals, birds and plants, all looking somewhat otherworldly. ‘Jock and the Tiger Cat‘ (1968), it is speculated, is John himself as a small boy.

John Byrne, 'American Boy with banjo' 1967-68, oil on panel, lent by A Martinelli © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
‘American Boy with banjo’ 1967-68, oil on panel, lent by A Martinelli. © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

Also here is Patrick’s ‘American Boy with Banjo’ (1967-68). Music is completely interwoven throughout Byrne’s work, his love of American Blues and the rock ’n’ roll music of his youth has clearly inspired him across so much of it. Byrne portrays musicians and instruments often, and banjos and especially guitars feature from his ‘Patrick’ era works onwards, to the ‘Underwood Lane’ series and his paintings of black American musicians, and also in his ‘Harlequin’ print series. Perhaps best known of all amongst these is his diptych portrait of ‘Billy Connolly and banjo’ (c.1974). Byrne generously recreated the banjo half of the work and presented it to Glasgow Museums in 2017, since the original had been lost in transit between exhibitions many years before.

'Portrait of Billy Connolly, by John Byrne', oil on panel, CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
‘Portrait of Billy Connolly, by John Byrne’, oil on panel, CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections. © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

A series of Los Angeles watercolour studies of 1971 were also enjoyed at this visit. These were painted when Byrne was there working with the musician Donovan on an animated film project. The compositions observe street life and the roadside low-rise architecture and graphic signs of Los Angeles.

'Me and Dad en route for the library', ink and graphite on paper, lent by A Martinelli © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
‘Me and my Dad en route for the Library’, ink and graphite on paper, lent by A Martinelli. © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

Early in the show too is an ink and graphite drawing – ‘Me and my Dad en route for the Library’ (2017). Here we see John as a wee boy happily going along with his father who he draws here as a larger than life character, illustrating a great story about childhood visits to the Paisley Library and Museum with his Dad.

John Byrne, 'The Slab Boys original poster artwork for the Ramshorn Theatre 2009', watercolour, ink and graphite on paper, private collection, Charles Marks © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
‘The Slab Boys original poster artwork for the Ramshorn Theatre 2009’, watercolour, ink and graphite on paper. Private collection, Charles Marks © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

There is extensive material relating to Byrne’s playwriting of the semi-autobiographical Slab Boys trilogy that emerged at the end of the 1970s going into the early 80s – The Slab Boys, Cuttin’ a Rug and Still Life. There followed a fourth in Nova Scotia in 2008. (Look out for mention of some now very famous actors who were in the New York off-Broadway production of the Slab Boys in 1983). A highlight of this section of the exhibition are the storyboards for the Slab Boys film of 1997 – wonderfully detailed ink and watercolour drawings of each scene, all mapped out by Byrne.

'Emma Thompson as Suzi Kettles from Tutti Frutti', 1985 86, watercolour, pen and ink, © John Byrne. All rights Reserved. DACS 2022
‘Emma Thompson as Suzi Kettles from Tutti Frutti’, 1985 86, watercolour, pen and ink. © John Byrne. All rights Reserved. DACS 2022

Byrne’s playwriting and art have been running in tandem for a long time. He likes to draw the characters he is going to write about, and there are many fine examples of this in the show. The BBC television series Tutti Frutti (1987) and Your Cheatin’ Heart (1990) will be remembered fondly by many, and many of Byrne’s works surrounding these productions are on show, including paintings and illustrations of many of the characters.

John Byrne, 'Guitar painted with Gerry Rafferty', private collection © John Byrne. All rights Reserved. DACS 2022
‘Guitar painted with Gerry Rafferty’. Private collection © John Byrne. All rights Reserved. DACS 2022

Over the years Byrne has decorated many guitars and banjos, and in the show is the beautifully painted Martin acoustic guitar for his fellow Paisley buddy, the late musician Gerry Rafferty, created during the ‘Patrick’ era and depicting Gerry on the guitar top with his name formed in tree-form and ribboned lettering.

Many of us may have a John Byrne work at home – in our record collections! Byrne has created paintings for record sleeves that have been the distinctive visual accompaniment to the music of Gerry Rafferty, Donovan, the Humblebums, Stealers Wheel, even the Beatles, and examples of all of these are here.

Gerry Rafferty’s early life and the music of the 1950s and 60s that inspired him form the basis of Byrne’s latest stage work Underwood Lane, to be performed for the first time in July 2022. Goings-on in ‘Underwood Lane’, the street in Paisley where Rafferty grew up, have been the subject of paintings and printmaking by Byrne over a number of years. Works such as Incident, Underwood Lane (2011) conjure up an atmosphere of danger with shadowy and knife-wielding characters emerging from dark tenements, as a young guitar-toting rock ’n’ roller makes his way along. This series of paintings is rich in colour, detail and in storytelling, rendered with dramatic lighting.

'Hands Up', 2006, oil on board, private collection © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
‘Hands Up’, 2006, oil on board. Private collection © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

A self-portraits gallery is placed centrally in the exhibition, and there are forty-two diverse works here, from across the decades of Byrne’s painting and printmaking.They range from early large-scale and very detailed oils such as Self-Portrait in a Flowered Jacket (1971-73) to more recent print works done in conjunction with the Glasgow Print Studio, which are contrastingly looser and more spontaneous, such as Red ’kerchief (2020). There is great humour in many of these portrayals, including those where there is a depiction of Byrne facing his mortality. Byrne has returned to himself as the subject many times over his life. The ‘poster boy’ image for the exhibition is the self-portrait ‘Hands Up’ where it almost appears as if John has his hands flat against the inside of the picture frame glass. There is great variety in these many interpretations of himself, no two are the same but there are distinctive characteristics in many – his moustache and beard, shorn hair, sometimes a hat, possibly a striped jumper, and often the plume of a smouldering cigarette.

'Jeanine with Flowers', oil on canvas, private collection © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
‘Jeanine with Flowers’, oil on canvas. Private collection © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

There is a portraits section too, many of family and friends. Billy Connolly is a famous friend on show, and he appears several times. Look out for a particularly beautiful conté drawing of Byrne’s young daughter Celie (1973), demonstrating his superb draughtsmanship. Jeanine with flowers (2011) is a portrait of Byrne’s wife, with abundant roses prominent and intertwining with her figure. (Curiously this work is signed both as ‘Patrick’ and ‘John Byrne’.)

King's Dome mural artwork, © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
‘Artwork for the King’s Theatre Dome’. © John Byrne. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

Coverage is given to large scale works: murals such as Boy on dogback – a very early Glasgow gable end mural from the 1970s, the Billy Connolly at 75 mural for the BBC from 2017, and a reproduction of the ceiling centrepiece commissioned by the King’s Theatre Edinburgh. Artwork for the King’s Theatre Dome (2013) depicts a sun, moon, a starry sky, a male harlequin and a female muse, and the masks of comedy and tragedy.

Coming almost to the present, there are lively prints made in 2020 in conjunction with Glasgow Print Studio on the theme of Byrne’s children’s story Donald and Benoit, originally a bedtime story for Byrne’s children Honor and Xavier, which then became a book with illustrations by Byrne.

‘The many styles of Byrne’ is an apt final heading in the show. One is increasingly struck as you go round, by the huge variety of Byrne’s techniques and styles in painting and printmaking. There is no single style, there are many, and they are all accomplished and wonderful. Many favourites are included in the generously illustrated book that accompanies the exhibition, published by Glasgow Museums and written by the exhibition’s curator Martin McSheaffrey-Craig.

Allow plenty of time to see this exhibition, there is so much to see. Across it all there is great humour, imagination, storytelling, visual richness, fine detail, vivid colour, brilliant painting and beautiful draftsmanship. It is inspiring and hugely entertaining – an exhibition for John Byrne’s many fans, old and new.

John Byrne works of several decades are also on show in the exhibition Ceci n’est pas une rétrospective at the Fine Art Society Edinburgh, until 16th July, and his stage work Underwood Lane will be performed in Johnstone and then at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre this month too, after a pandemic delay, and the preceding years of development and perseverance by Byrne to finally bring it to the stage.

With grateful thanks to Gordon Reid for this review.

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