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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 janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Inimitable John Byrne

This is an unedited version of a profile I wrote about John Byrne ahead of his solo show at the Open Eye gallery in Edinburgh. My first par was chopped - probably quite rightly - from the version which appeared in The Herald Arts section at the weekend (13/08/11).

I've met John Byrne a couple of times and I tell you, if I looked like him, I'd be drawing/painting myself at every turn. 

Scotland has a couple of literary artists who excel at both visual art and creative writing. One is Alasdair Gray, the other John Byrne. Very different artistic beasts.

I am in awe of both men who always push out the boundaries and appear to look forward as opposed to backwards in their respective lives and work.

On Broadway by John Byrne

John Byrne RSA
Open Eye Gallery 
34 Abercromby Place, Edinburgh EH3 6QE
0131 557 1020 
From today until September 5
I’ve just finished reading Diana Athill’s memoir, Somewhere Towards the End. At the end of this cool and clear-headed book about what it is like to grow old in the early days of the 21st century, she quotes novelist Jean Rhys’s assertion that, as her own life is the only one she really knows, ‘an individual life is interesting enough to merit examination.’

As a prolific writer, illustrator, painter and printmaker, John Byrne’s own life has been a constant inspiration in his work. 

Now 71, Byrne’s career has segued between writing and art with seemingly breathtaking ease. It helps that he looks like the real deal. With his long craggy features, seemingly untamed moustache (a roll-up usually hanging from an unseen top lip) and audacious – yet always stylish – dress sense, he is an artwork in his own right.

This major exhibition of Byrne’s paintings, drawings and etchings coincides with the launch of a new biography about him by Robert Hewison. Perhaps because of this – and the fact Byrne is now into his 70s – there is a real sense of retrospection in the air at the Open Eye Gallery, which is staging this exhibition as part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival.

Not that the work in this exhibition is melancholic, or backward-looking. If anything, Byrne, famous for his wit, humour and pathos in equal measure, is projecting a more serious face to the world.

And there are, as ever, many faces on display, including five self-portraits and an affecting oil painting of his friend, the artist Steven Campbell, painted in 2005, just two years before Campbell died at the age of 54.

Steven Campbell by John Byrne

The two men hadn’t known each other long by the time Campbell died, but they formed an instant bond when they met and this elegiac portrait speaks to the viewer about this shared approach to life and art.

Also on show at the Open Eye is a selection of original artworks from Donald and Benoit: The Story of a Cat and a Boy, written and illustrated by Byrne and published earlier this year.

There is a very real tenderness in these illustrations, the original idea for which sprung from stories which Byrne used to tell his children Xavier and Honor, at bed-time.

Each one is a story-board in its own right, reeling you in and holding you in the moment. As well as being beautifully executed in pencil and watercolour, the detail is exquisite. In one, Night-time, Fishertown, various characters, including Donald the black cat, are gathered around the entrance to a fish restaurant called The Dark Night of the Lemon Sole Cafe. From the fish-bone graffiti on the  wall to the sole-shaped signage, Byrne conveys humour, pathos and an edge of menace with an instinctive eye.

Night-time, Fishertown by John Byrne

As Byrne says in Hewison’s biography, ‘I have many voices and many different colours of voice and different mimicking voices as well and I think at my time of life, it’s about time to start on some serious business.’

By way of a riposte, the art critic and historian Professor Duncan Macmillan points out in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue that ‘all those different voices, and in so many different media too, already constitute pretty serious business.’

Although narrative and role playing runs through everything which Byrne touches, in this exhibition, he shows that sometimes, it might just be about what he sees. 

That being said, there is something about combined elements of the simple and beautiful oil and acrylic still life, Electric Blue/Acid Yellow, painted this year, which made me think of Byrne’s close friend, the musician Gerry Rafferty, who died at the beginning of this year. 

Electric Blue/Acid Yellow by John Byrne
Unusually for a Byrne picture, there is no figure in the frame, but in another recent work, Brown Guitar and Lemon, a still smoking cigarette in an ash tray and a bust of what could be a young Byrne has been added.

There is exquisite draughtsmanship in all of Byrne’s work and the work in this exhibition makes this clear on many different levels. Whether he is putting himself in the picture as a self-portrait or whether he is painting Two Apples (another beautiful painting in this show), or a black cat called Donald, John Byrne is deadly serious about each and every piece of work he produces.

Two Apples by John Byrne

As part of the programme of events taking place at this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, John Byrne will discussing art, life, music and memories with broadcaster Edi Stark at the Open Eye Gallery, on Thursday August 25 from 6pm-7pm. Only 35 places are available at a cost of £5 by calling the gallery on 0131 557 1020 or emailing at mail@openeyegallery.co.uk


  1. Thanks Catriona. I see you're a recent graduate. How's it going?

  2. Its been pretty scary. Finding my feet has been challenging, to say the least, after being in such a hub of creativity and unlimited resources for four years.
    In order to retain some sort of practice whilst supporting myself with a 9-5 job I gave myself a challenge of doing a daily drawing blog for a year, last November. Its became a bit of an online sketchbook. I am only now beginning to paint again and feel ready to make my practice full time.
    I have been reading your blog for a while now, it has been inspiring and has given me lots of ideas for where I want to take my practice. Thankyou.

  3. It's not easy - and not easy times either Catriona but what you're doing is a great idea. I'll check it out. Any kind of deadline, self-imposed or not, is good! This blog started out as an online 'holding bay' for my art words but it's grown into a sketch pad of sorts. Thanks for your comments about it. I need to do a bit of a rejig... finding the time!


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