29 Jun 2022

'Genius' artist with Irish roots to display decades of work at major exhibition

'Genius' artist with Irish roots to display decades of work at major exhibition

The first retrospective of the “genius” artist and playwright John Patrick Byrne for more than two decades opens in Glasgow on Friday. 

A Big Adventure charts the career of the polymath - born in the Scottish lowlands to Irish parents - known for works including his play The Slab Boys and the 1987 TV show Tutti Frutti which starred Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson.

One highlight of the show at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is a room displaying more than 40 self-portraits, described as the most ever displayed at one time, spanning 1963 to 2020.

Paintings of famous figures including Byrne’s former partner, Tilda Swinton, and Billy Connolly also feature in the exhibition, along with more intimate studies of close family and friends.

Mr Byrne, 82, said: “It’s been a real pleasure working with Glasgow Museums on this retrospective. I’ve been in and out of Kelvingrove my whole life.

“It’s a delight to be reunited with works I’ve not seen in years, especially as they are hanging on the walls of a place I, and so many people, love.

“I’m glad that with the help of so many friends who’ve loaned artworks we’ve been able to showcase a really broad range, from murals to storyboards and everything in between.

“I suppose you could say it tells much of my life story. I hope visitors enjoy it, seeing art should be fun. For me it’s certainly been a fun, Big Adventure all these years.” 

Tilda Swinton came to see the exhibition privately on Wednesday and was said to have loved it.

A Big Adventure has seven sections and opens with a brief look at Byrne’s early life.

The artist speaks fondly of growing up in Paisley and of working as a slab boy, mixing paint for the designers at AF Stoddard & Co carpet factory after leaving school.

In 1958 he was accepted to study at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and later returned to AF Stoddard & Co. as a carpet designer, teaching evening classes at GSA.

During this time, he sent a small painting to London’s Portal Gallery, pretending it was the work of his father and creating an alter ego, Patrick.

The gallery offered “Patrick” his first solo exhibition and to this day Byrne occasionally signs his works “Patrick”.

The exhibition also explores Byrne’s passion for music as well as writing and his influence on Scottish culture through his collaborations with other artistic figures such as his friends, the late Gerry Rafferty, and Billy Connolly.

Martin Craig, curator of Art post 1945 at Glasgow Life Museums, who put the exhibition together, said: “It’s been an absolute joy working with John on this exhibition. I’ve always been a fan, but learning more about his work, getting to know the man himself and listening to what friends and family have to say, I’m in awe.

“This project started pre-pandemic and, with so many works in private collections, Covid brought it’s challenges. The Fine Art Society have been amazing and, of course, as soon as you say it’s for John, everyone is more than happy to help.

“Words like icon and genius can be overused, but in John’s case they are perfectly apt. He is, without question, one of the most important artists of the last 70 years and he is so prolific.

“We could have filled the exhibition space five times over. Deciding was hard. A Big Adventure is filled to the gunwales with striking artwork, I hope it captures the anarchic, jubilation and vastness of John’s life and career.”

He added: “Tilda was in seeing the exhibition on Wednesday and she said that she loved it which meant a lot.”

The last Byrne retrospective took place twenty two years ago at Paisley Museum in 2000.

A Big Adventure runs from May 27 until September 18.

Annette Christie, chairwoman of Glasgow Life, said: “John Byrne is quite simply a true, Scottish cultural colossus.

“This captivating new exhibition, the first at Kelvingrove since 2019, proudly celebrates one of Scotland’s most successful sons and shows why he is rightly considered one of the most gifted artists of the last 70 years.”

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