Meeting John Byrne

by Alice Strang, 19 August 2014

Alice Strang is a Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; she recently curated the National Galleries of Scotland’s landmark Scottish Colourist Series of exhibitions of the work of F. C. B. Cadell, S. J. Peploe and J. D. Fergusson.

Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, Scottish National Gallery, 13 July 2014

‘We’ve sorted out the images, everything’s ready, but there’s no sign of John’ explained Edi Stark, the acclaimed broadcaster who was about to conduct an ‘in conversation’ with the artist and writer John Byrne. As we chit-chatted about Edi’s previous interviews with him, a man immediately recognisable from the self-portrait used as the poster for his Sitting Ducks exhibition was ushered in to the lecture theatre, flanked by female colleagues from our Education department. Holding a half-drunk mug of black tea, he was a man of points and curls, from the tips of his moustache to his pocket handkerchief, and from the wavy locks on the top of his otherwise shaved head to the silk cravat wound around his neck. Softly-spoken greetings were followed by the gracious granting of a photograph with Edi for twitter, before the pair headed to the Green Room to gather their thoughts.

As I went in search of an internet signal, I walked past an impressive and growing queue of people who had come to hear the talk. On my return, Edi was on a coffee and cake mission and I found myself alone with Byrne, in an atmosphere of expectant nerves – his and mine. Here was the painter of some of the most searing, affectionate, humorous and beautiful portraits in modern Scottish art. Here was the author of The Slab Boys, Tutti Frutti and Your Cheating Heart. I asked if he would like to be by himself or would like some company and I glowed as he began to talk, about seeing some of his works in the exhibition for the first time since the 1970s and of his pleasure working with the National Galleries of Scotland’s team.

Edi returned, armed with sustenance for them both, the lecture theatre doors were opened and the 200 seats filled up amidst low, respectful murmurings. I awkwardly held open a back door, whilst Edi and Byrne hovered, ready to make their entrance after an introduction by Julie Lawson, curator of Sitting Ducks. How do two people walk down to a stage, settle into their chairs and already have an audience hanging on to their every word? It happened in an instant as they began by discussing the poster image. Byrne’s voice grew in volume, a deep, rumbling and musical Scottish voice, sparks of humour, honesty and determination - enforced with the occasional swear word - flew, as prompted by Edi’s questions. Recalling his days at Glasgow School of Art, his own time as a slab boy and the financial failure of a Third Eye Gallery show which meant he did not exhibit his art for seventeen years, Byrne was amusing, open and self-effacing about his career. Love and warmth flowed from him as he discussed images of his children and partners and his happiness following his recent marriage.

With a glance at her watch, Edi realised the allotted hour was almost up. She, like all the people present, said she could have continued for hours to come, but with three questions from the audience the event drew to a close. Byrne was immediately swamped by admirers, in the lecture theatre and queuing at a signing table outside. I managed to catch his eye, wave and thank him as Edi and I walked towards the gallery café. I had met a living legend and he was inspirational.

John Byrne discusses some of the works on show in the exhibition John Byrne: Sitting Ducks as well as how he goes about making portraits and his reasons for doing so.

[Duration 6:52]

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