Standing apart from artistic movements and trends, John Byrne RSA’s work is often characterised by its narrative threads and macabre themes. Working fervently in his Edinburgh studio, Byrne’s creativity often seems to pour out through his brush or pen, working with whatever subject draws his attention, be it his own profile or the murky underworld of the metropolis. Drawing on both memories and the imaginary, his paintings combine his technical mastery and expansive repertoire of visual cues.


John Byrne RSA was born in 1940 to an Irish Catholic family and grew up in Ferguslie Park, a housing estate in Paisley frequently cited at the time as the worst slum in Europe. Characters in Byrne’s iconography seem fashioned from memories of Paisley. Having left school without any qualifications, Byrne gained admission to Glasgow School of Art in 1958 and, as critic Cordelia Oliver has said, before long ‘could draw like Millais.’ Considering the rules and regulations of the art school to be too stringent, however, he transferred to Edinburgh College of Art in 1961, only to return to Glasgow to complete his degree having found Edinburgh even worse. He went on to win the prestigious Bellahouston Award for painting and travelled to Perugia.


In a 2011 interview in The Herald, John Byrne recounts a moment 50 years prior when, as a young artist, he took the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh to attend a prize-giving ceremony at the Royal Scottish Academy, where he was due to collect a painting award. Lighting up a cigarette before the Royal toast, Byrne incurred the wrath of Academician David Donaldson, placing him, he felt, on ‘a shooglie nail’ at the RSA ever since. Now an internationally-renowned painter and playwright, and an Academician himself, Byrne’s nail in the Academy’s wall should seem a little sturdier.