Artist and playwright John Byrne dies aged 83

The artist and playwright John Byrne has died at the age of 83.

The Fine Art Society announced that the Paisley-born polymath, known for works including his play The Slab Boys and the 1987 TV show Tutti Frutti, died “peacefully” on Thursday with his wife Jeanine by his side.

As well as being a “masterful” painter, Byrne designed record covers for the likes of Donovan, The Beatles, Gerry Rafferty and Sir Billy Connolly.

His work is held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

Theatre show goes on display
John Byrne was known for his theatre work (David Cheskin/PA)

In a statement on Friday, The Fine Art Society said: “It is with huge sadness that we announce the death of John Byrne. He died peacefully yesterday with his wife Jeanine by his side. We will miss him tremendously. Our thoughts are with his family.

“John was one of the most inventive and versatile of all Scotland’s modern artists. As well as being a technically masterful painter, he was a designer of theatre sets and album covers and one of the most notable playwrights of his generation.

“The Slab Boys (1978) and Tutti Frutti (1987) were landmarks of theatre and TV.”

The artist grew up in Paisley and worked 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.

The Fine Art society said: “Born in Paisley and trained at the Glasgow School of Art, his own image was a signature of Scotland.

“He recreated it over and over in the self-portraits which made his finely cultivated appearance instantly recognisable, wreathed in cigarette smoke, his hooded, often sleep-deprived eyes twinkling with self-aware amusement.

“‘Paisley Buddies are, to a man and a woman, total oddballs. I should know, I’m one of them,’ John said once.

“But it was an oddity seen through a prism of the fantastic and John made magic out of himself.”

John Byrne photocall
Artist John Byrne with his work titled ‘West of 8th’ (Danny Lawson/PA)

Last year, Byrne’s career was charted in an exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

One highlight of the show, titled A Big Adventure, was 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 Sir Billy Connolly also featured in the exhibition, along with more intimate studies of close family and friends.

At the time, he said: “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.”

The exhibition also explored 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 Sir Billy Connolly.

As a writer, Byrne is perhaps best known for the 1987 six-part drama Tutti Frutti, starring the late Robbie Coltrane and Dame Emma Thompson. The story of a Scottish rock n’ roll band won six Baftas, including the best actress award for Dame Emma. It was also made into a stage play in 2006.

Byrne’s other drama credits include The Slab Boys in 1978, and 1990’s Your Cheatin’ Heart.