Born in 1940, John Byrne grew up in the Ferguslie Park housing estate in Paisley, frequently cited at the time as the worst slum in Europe. Leaving school without any qualifications, he worked as a ‘slab boy,’ grinding pigment in a carpet factory in Elderslie. This experience would provide the inspiration for his trilogy of plays, The Slab Boys (1978), widely considered as one of the most important works of twentieth-century Scottish literature.


Byrne gained entrance to Glasgow School of Art in 1958 and earned the admiration of his tutors and peers as his talent for drawing and painting became apparent. As critic Cordelia Oliver has said, before long Byrne ‘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 Italy to view the works of the Renaissance Masters. Leaving art school, From 1964 until 1966, Byrne designed jackets for Penguin Books. Having had his work rejected by various galleries, Byrne submitted a painting to the Portal Gallery, London, under the pseudonym of Patrick. Finding success under this guise, Byrne continued to present work as Patrick even after his cover was blown.


Byrne was an acclaimed polymath, working in the visual arts, theatre, set design, illustration, film and TV, creating the acclaimed series Tutti Frutti in 1987. He has worked in printmaking since the late 1970s, using the facilities at Glasgow Print Studio to produce a diverse body of work. 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. Becoming a renowned painter and playwright, Byrne was elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 2004 and became a full Member in 2007 and with it Byrne’s nail in the Academy’s wall became a little sturdier. Over the years since his election, John was an active member of the Academy, being a part of the hanging Committee for the inaugural New Contemporaries exhibition in 2009 and sitting on Council in 2011.