Scotland is in mourning after the death of John Byrne, a renowned playwright, artist and designer, who passed away peacefully on Thursday at the age of 83. Byrne was best known for his play The Slab Boys Trilogy, which explored working-class life in Scotland, and the TV series Tutti Frutti, which starred Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson. He was also a prolific painter, printmaker and theatre designer, whose distinctive style earned him acclaim and admiration.
A life of creativity and passion
Byrne was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1940, into a family of Irish Catholic descent. He grew up in the Ferguslie Park housing scheme and attended St Mirin’s Academy. He showed an early talent for art and enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art, from which he graduated in 1963. Before and after art school, he worked as a “slab boy” at Stoddard’s carpet factory in Elderslie, where he mixed paint used in the manufacture of carpets. This experience inspired his first play, The Slab Boys, which premiered in 1978 at the Traverse Theatre Club in Edinburgh.
The Slab Boys was followed by two sequels, Cuttin’ a Rug and Still Life, which completed The Slab Boys Trilogy. The trilogy depicted the lives and aspirations of three young men working in a carpet factory in the 1950s, and was praised for its humour, realism and dialogue. The plays launched the careers of several actors, including Coltrane, Thompson, Billy Connolly and Alan Cumming. In 2008, Byrne added a fourth part, Nova Scotia, which revisited the characters in their later years.
Byrne also wrote several other plays, such as The Loveliest Night of the Year, Cara Coco, Colquhoun and MacBryde, and adaptations of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. He also wrote and directed for television, most notably Tutti Frutti, a six-part comedy-drama about a rock and roll band in Scotland, which won a BAFTA award in 1987. He also created Your Cheatin’ Heart, a musical series about country and western music in Scotland, which aired in 1990.
A distinctive and diverse artistic style
Byrne was not only a successful writer, but also a gifted artist and designer. He painted in a variety of styles, from realism to expressionism to faux-naif. He often used his life as a source of inspiration, portraying himself, his family and his friends in his works. He also created portraits of celebrities, such as Billy Connolly, Tilda Swinton and David Bowie. He designed the covers for several albums, such as The Beatles Ballads, Gerry Rafferty’s City to City and The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith. He also designed sets and costumes for theatre, opera and ballet, such as The Nutcracker, The Magic Flute and The Mikado.
Byrne was also known for his use of pseudonyms and alter egos, such as Patrick, John Patrick and Patrick O’Byrne. He explained that he adopted different names to avoid being pigeonholed or stereotyped by the art world. He said: “I wanted to be free to do whatever I wanted to do, and not be labelled as a Scottish artist, or a working-class artist, or anything like that.”
A legacy of admiration and influence
Byrne’s death has been met with an outpouring of grief and tributes from his fans, friends and colleagues. Among them was Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, who tweeted: “So sad to hear of the death of John Byrne. He was a hugely talented artist and writer and a lovely, warm and witty human being. Scotland has lost one of its best. My thoughts are with his family and friends.”
Other prominent figures who expressed their condolences and admiration included actors Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Alan Cumming and Brian Cox, writers Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Irvine Welsh, musicians Rod Stewart, Midge Ure and Ricky Ross, and artists Peter Howson, Jack Vettriano and Alison Watt.
Byrne’s work has also inspired and influenced many younger artists and writers, who have followed in his footsteps and celebrated his legacy. His plays have been revived and performed by various theatre companies, such as the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the Citizens Theatre. His paintings have been exhibited and collected by several galleries and museums, such as the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and the Paisley Museum and Art Galleries. His style and vision have also been emulated and admired by many contemporary artists, such as David Shrigley, Martin Boyce and Rachel Maclean.
Byrne’s death is a great loss for Scotland and the world, but his work will live on and continue to entertain, enlighten and inspire generations to come.