While Sitting Ducks, a collection of some fifty, largely unseen works from private collections that forms the body of a long overdue show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is already up and running, it is the twenty-odd brand new pieces that make up Dead End, Byrne's Edinburgh Art Festival show at Bourne Fine Art that should reveal where Byrne is currently at.
On a Tuesday morning in Edinburgh's Filmhouse bar, the now seventy-four year old Byrne appears to be in the rudest of health and even ruder humour. This despite his recent labours being briefly frustrated by a bout of flu. His immaculate checked three-piece suit and elaborate beard may give Byrne the air of a Bohemian dandy dating from anytime between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bloomsbury set and 1950s Soho, but such apparel can't hide the rough as sand-paper but still gentle baritone of his unreconstructed Paisley patois, nor the twinkle of wonder and mischief that frequently lights up his piercing blue eyes. It's a twinkle that may well be the product of a mis-spent youth at the dawn of rock and roll, when the austere black-and-white post-war world turned technicolour. The painting that gave Dead End it's title is a give-away.
“I painted a big watercolour, which is twice the size of this table,” Byrne says, nodding at where we're sat. “I had no idea what I was gonnae do, and I painted two teddy-boys in big close-up, with exaggerated hair, and then I put in a cinema behind them, the Astoria. Outside is a car parked, it's a Riley, my Riley from 1957, and there's a guy dancing on the roof of it, and there's people running across the edge of the roof of the cinema. There's a guy in a close nearby who's about to stamp on a cat who's looking out on us, blissfully unaware that there's a family up the stairs watching him, and there's a guy on a motorbike under the bridge that they're standing on.
“The film that's showing is Dead End, which was a Broadway stage play, for which they built a huge gable-end on the stage. It was a made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids, who became the Bowery Boys, and they were our heroes when we were growing up in the 1950s.”
This impressionistic auto-biographical streak is key to Byrne's work dating right back to The Slab Boys, in which lead character Phil McCann was a teddy-boy who, like Byrne, worked in Stoddard's carpet factory in Paisley during 1957 while trying to get into art school.
“Well, why not?” says Byrne. “I lived that life. I lived the life of a teddy boy in a complete slum, and it was so exciting, and every new day was a joy, a total and absolute utter joy. So why would I no' do that? Writers do it. Writers use their own life, but very few painters do. I mean, they use a part of it, part of their psyche or whatever it is and try things out, but it's no' that entertaining. Also, I want to entertain myself, and keep myself alive and thinking and constantly surprised. Unless you're totally engaged, it's pointless. It's a fucking hobby. A lot of artists these days have other jobs, but how boring is that? If you're going to paint, you need to do it full time and live it.”
Other paintings in Dead End feature “a whole lot of narratives, which you'll have to decipher, because I don't start off with a theme. If you plan too much, you cannae wait to finish the bloody thing, and you get annoyed, whereas if you're exploring it as you go along and things are revealing themselves, it becomes very entertaining, and you cannae wait to see what happens next. I trust my unconscious to do all that, though I didn't start out that way. It's a good thing not to have any thoughts in your head, and just be fucking knackered the whole time, because that's when you're unconscious takes over, and you're just the robot who does it. It sounds fanciful, but it's true.”
Byrne's conversation is unguarded, discursive and occasionally scurrilous, and in the main is peppered with little gurgles of laughter. Beyond an amused scepticism where conceptual art is concerned, only occasionally does Byrne appear mildly affronted, like when he talks about how one half of an eight-foot diptych of Billy Connolly which has been on loan in perpetuity to the Peoples Palace in Glasgow since it was first painted in 1975 was discovered to be missing when the curators of Sitting Ducks came to look for it.
Then there are the sketches for a mural of a gable end in Partick which Byrne painted around the same time, and which were found in a skip at the side of the old Third Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street as the pioneering arts centre was being emptied in preparation for its transformation into the far glossier Centre of Contemporary Arts.
“I'm sure the National Gallery will be more careful,” Byrne deadpans.
Growing up in the rough Ferguslie Park area of Paisley, Byrne appears to have lived in a permanent state of wonder that transcended his surroundings, even as he sought out worlds beyond them. Exposed to art at an early age, he fell in love with Titian and Salvador Dali's Christ of Saint John of the Cross, which has hung in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum since 1952, and which Byrne calls “an extraordinary painting.”
Byrne lapped up the part works of the great masters serialised through the Daily Express, and spent hours in his local library
“And there was life itself,” he remembers, “because you were playing out or in the house all the time, inventing things, and the wireless was a great pictorial aid. I remember hearing Christopher Fry's A Phoenix Too Frequent on the Third Programme when I was twelve or thirteen, which was absolutely spell-binding. That sort of thing, poetic drama, is dead in the water now.
“My life was crammed with all this stuff. Then there was the life around me. We knew everyone in the entire street, and every one of them was a phenomenon. You didnae need to write anything. It was ready-made. I went to so many schools, and I loved every one of them. Then when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I had this unformed and unconscious realisation that I had all the information I needed to last me an entire life. I couldnae put it into words, but my heart leapt with joy at the prospect of that. I was delighted and thrilled and astonished on a daily basis.”
After studying at Glasgow School of Art, Byrne had his first show in 1962 at Bytheswood Square Gallery. It would be another five years, however, before he would find real acclaim, under the assumed name of Patrick, with works Byrne somewhat fancifully claimed to be by his imaginary naïve painter father. This was an idea that came about after reading a piece on self-taught artists in a Sunday newspaper colour supplement.
“You needed a hook,” Byrne says. “Like if there was a murderer who'd come out of prison or something, their work would get attention.”
Byrne's mischief worked, and in 1968, conscious of being feted for great things, his next show was
photographed by David Bailey for a piece written by Marina Warner, “who took me round the corner and bought me a packet of fags. I was enthralled. It was very showbizzy. You met anybody and everybody.”
Byrne painted album sleeves for Donovan and his Paisley-born friend and contemporary, Gerry Rafferty, and moved into stage design, working with Scottish Opera, the Royal Court and on the West End.
“That was the only time I could get to meet any other playwrights,” Byrne says, “by designing their shows.
Two iconic designs were for The Great Northern Well Boot Show in 1972, and John McGrath's 7:84 production of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil a year later. While the latter pretty much changed Scotland's theatrical landscape as we know it, with Byrne's pop-up book set a major feature, the former is remembered as the show that made Billy Connolly a star. Byrne designed the banana boots which Connolly eventually had made when he went out on tour.
A move into play-writing was inevitable
“It just seemed natural to me,” Byrne says. “I always went to the theatre. I slept through every production at the Citz, because I was always so knackered from painting. But I enjoyed that. I took it in by osmosis. They were always doing such wonderful things, a lot of which I couldn't get a handle on because they were so obscure, but they were always great shows, with Phillip Prowse's design. They were never laid-back or unimportant. They were always the most important thing, so I got a great education at the Citz. I actually sent The Slab Boys to the Citz, but Giles Havergal said they couldn't do it, because they only had one Scottish actor in the company, but why didn't I send it to the Traverse?”
Byrne's first play, Writers Cramp, was a hit of the 1977 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and led to the Traverse eventually picking up The Slab Boys, which itself was something of a landscape-changer. Byrne's rich, pop culture derived dialogue was delivered with a music hall flourish that showed just how vibrant the Scottish dramatic voice could be in much the same way his paintings had and indeed still do.
“I couldnae not do the two things that I do,” says Byrne, “and I'm blessed that I can do the two things that entertain me. People who don't know me at all say don't you think of retiring. You mean die? People think like that because they hate their jobs, but that could never happen to me. I was never a conformist, and I couldnae wait.”
Beyond Dead End and Sitting Ducks, Byrne has several theatre projects pending which he can't talk about yet. He's also just directed a video for American band, Merchandise, who are about to release a new album on 4AD Records. With music playing such a big part in Byrne's work, it will be fascinating to see what he brings to a contemporary act like Merchandise. One shouldn't, however, expect anything too obscure.
“I love populist art,” Byrne says, “genuine populist stuff like Norman Rockwell, who I adore, and popular music. I've always loved it, but populism is totally under-rated, even though when it's good there's a real intelligence to it. There's no point in being obscure for the sake of it. The big thing is whether something's alive and does it speak to you. If it isn't alive, what's the point?”
Some new writing, Byrne says, is also on the cards.
“At the moment I'm all painted out,” he says. “I've been painting morning till night seven days a week, and I need to give my mind and my imagination a break from all that visual stuff. But that won't last. It's when I'm working that I feel most alive.”
Dead End, Bourne Fine Art, Edinburgh Art Festival, July4th-August 30th; Sitting Ducks, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, June 14th-October 19th.
The List Edinburgh Festivals Guide, July 2014