- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)
Monday, 2 November 2009
PAWPRINTS: How a bedtime story for his children inspired John Byrne's new exhibition
Well, that was the coverline on The Arts section of The Sunday Herald's arts section yesterday... I preferred the inside headline: The Cat's Whiskers.
I interviewed John Byrne last week in advance of his Cornerboys and Angels exhibition opening at Glasgow Print Studio. The exhibition features a few drawings for his forthcoming book, Donald and Benoit, a kids' adventure story about a boy and his cat, but most of the work is an amalgum of stuff from various periods and includes some stonking self-portraits.
Byrne is a changeling, I'm convinced of it... what a man. A pure genius, by the way!
"It’s not every man in his 70th year who could carry the look which John Byrne sports so effortlessly and with such dandyish aplomb. Tonight, as we meet at the ‘back door’ of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, where he’s been busy curating the RSA’s 183rd Annual Exhibition, heads turn as one in his direction as he emerges into the mellow autumn night air sporting baggy denims, a blue and white striped long sleeved matelot style t-shirt under a neat waistcoat with a Paisley Pattern cravat swaddling his crane-like neck.
It must happen to him all the time as he’s probably one of the most recognisable figures in contemporary Scotland and has even been described on the invite to his forthcoming exhibition at Glasgow Print Studio (GPS) as a ‘Scottish cultural icon and Renaissance man’.
With his famous long craggy features and grizzled whiskers which look most at home when he’s popped a roll-up into his mouth, Byrne looks for all the world like a devil-may-care angel about to spin a yarn or two.
Telling stories comes naturally to Byrne, who was born into an Irish Catholic family in Paisley just as the Second World War was getting into its stride in January 1940 and it was a tradition which was still strong in his parents.
Byrne the born storyteller can’t help but weave a narrative into every piece of art he produces. His masterpiece, Tutti Frutti (currently on the bestseller list after being released on DVD 22 years after it was first screened) was accompanied by the most exquisite artwork of the characters played by Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson et al.
Whether it‘s a simple monotype print self-portrait (of which there are several in his new Cornerboys and Angels exhibition at the GPS) or one of his ‘Starry-Eyed Angel’ etchings with their big beefy forearms, broad shoulders and tiny head staring inquisitively out at the viewer, Byrne’s unique visual language is always seeking ways to make sense of the world through creating a strong sense of visual narrative.
Although as a writer, he is famous for putting words into this mouths of his characters in grown-up dramas such as Tutti Frutti and The Slab Boys, Byrne has recently shifted his attention to a much younger audience for his new project, Donald and Benoît, a picture book adventure story for children in the 8-11 year-old age bracket.
Inspired by bedtime stories he used to tell his twins, Xavier and Honor, about Donald the black cat and Benoît, the 11-year-old boy who looks after him, the book is set in Fishertown, a part of Nairn, where Byrne and his young family have lived for the last decade. Written in his own handwriting and illustrated with detailed drawings, several of which will be on show in this new exhibition in Glasgow, the 64-page book is due to be published in autumn 2010, by New York-based publishing house, Rizzoli Publications
“The deadline for me finishing the book is the end of January 2010,” he says. “So the pressure is on. I do the illustrations at home on a board on my knee and they are very time-consuming. It’s very concentrated work.
“I’ve been inspired by the classic ‘This is…’ travel guides for children by the Czech illustrator and author M. Sasek which have recently been reissued. As everything is handwritten and illustrated by me, nothing will need to be typeset, it’ll all just be photographed and printed.”
Byrne is one of these people to whom a story can’t help attaching itself. No newspaper story about him is complete these days without mention of the unusual domestic arrangements which he shares with Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton, the mother of 12-year-old Xavier and Honor.
The couple share the parenting of their children and are still based in the north east of Scotland, but both have new partners. Swinton is with German artist Sandro Kopp, while Byrne has clearly found happiness with acclaimed Edinburgh-based lighting designer Jeanine Davies.
The new arrangement seems to suit them all and Byrne talks about Swinton affectionately and without artifice. It was Swinton, in fact, who played a key role in securing a publisher for Donald and Benoît.
“I used to tell the children a story about all the schemes which this wee boy Benoît would dream up to entertain Donald the cat it grew from there. We’d have things happen such as Donald being mummified and left overnight in a museum when an Egyptologist comes to Fishertown to give a lecture.
“Xavier would always fall asleep, but Honor would be sitting there with her eyes wide open. She would always have to have everything in place. It would all have to be believable. She was a very hard task mistress. I always have that in mind when I’m writing the book.
“About four years ago, the actress Nell Campbell, who starred in the original Rocky Horror Show, came to the big house in Nairn to stay and she overheard me telling the children the stories.
“She said to Tilda that I should do try to find a publisher and Tilda agreed, saying she’d been thinking that for a while, though I didn‘t know it.
“Not long after that, she happened to be in New York, where she met a literary agent called David Kuhn. ‘You must see this book idea,’ she told him, and phoned me to say I should Fed-Ex over sample pages.
“So I did send him the pages and he thought it was wonderful and that yes, he’d like to represent me. It was much later that he told me his heart every time he meets someone who says to him, ‘You must see this…’”
According to Byrne, writing for children has always been something which he has had on the back burner. “I tried my hand at it when I was 17 or 18 at Glasgow School of Art, but it didn’t really happen. It’s taken all this time for it to become real.
“The twins haven’t seen any of it yet,” he admits, joking that he’s the authoritarian figure of the family who shuffles into the attic with his stash of papers laughing maniacally. “Xavier was quite peeved when his mum told him I was publishing it. ‘But it’s our story,’ he told her.”
With the energy and commitment to his work of a man half his age, Byrne clearly thrives on juggling half a dozen projects at one time. When I went to take a look peek at some of the work which will be in the Cornerboys and Angels exhibition before it goes on the walls this week at Glasgow Print Studio’s shiny new base in Trongate 103, several members of the studio approached me to say how amazing it had been working with Byrne.
“He’s just so inventive,” says artist and master studio printer, Murray Robertson, who worked with Byrne on several pieces for this new show. “In the self-portrait monoprints, he has such control of the line, it’s incredible.”
Byrne himself describes Cornerboys and Angels as, ‘an amalgam of stuff from my six month sojourn at 22 King Street circa 1992 (The Angels) plus new work produced at 48 King Street in more recent times (The Cornerboys). Also a number of self-portrait monotypes.’ As ever, Byrne has been incredibly inventive and prolific, revisiting old work and reworking it (“I love the fact that when you change the colour of a scene, you change its whole mood”,) or creating new prints.
After chatting on Princes Street for a while, shouting above the din of the tramworks, we say goodbye and he heads off back into the RSA building where he has ‘hanging’ to get on with.
This year’s annual RSA exhibition opens on November 14 and focuses on the theme of Homecoming. Byrne, who has been an RSA associate since 2004, has been closely involved with selection process. Among the invited artists this year are, Annie Cattrell, Helen Flockhart, Peter Thomson, Chris Orr RA and Byrne’s fellow Paisley buddy and good friend, the sculptor Sandy Stoddart.
Leafing through his latest work, and chatting to GPS staff who talk of who inspiring it was having him around, it occurs to me that the hugely prolific Byrne is happiest when he’s searching for meaning in the various layers he consistently finds in his fellow man or woman, be it in the arch of his own jaggy eye brow or in the various hand-coloured etchings of the same scene in Underwood Street.
Then, there are all those mesmerising self-portraits of a face which doesn’t get any less interesting as it ages.
Couple that sublime search with an eye which is so in tune with his hand, that it hurts and the result is a prolific artist with a unique vision. Not a man whose own story should be glibly told.
John Byrne: Cornerboys and Angels
Glasgow Print Studio
Trongate 103, Glasgow
0141 552 0704
Tue-Sat, 10am-5.30pm, Sun, 12pm-5pm
November 6 - 29