Dear Scotland referendum

Dear Scotland. . . John Byrne at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery


John Byrne Tilda Swinton
Tilda Swinton, b. 1960 2001 John Byrne Medium Pastel on paper Size 48.70 x 68.60 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery


John Byrne is best known south of the Tweed for his 1978 ‘Slab Boys’ trilogy. The three plays, set in a Paisley carpet factory, are a hand grenade of vitality and linguistic flourish. The same qualities are evident in this retrospective of Byrne’s original career as a painter and portraitist.

The canvases come with a blast of theatrical show. First they are large, often a hundred square feet in size. The artist has fun with his long nose and exaggerated moustache. He presents himself in raffish hat and scarf. A throbbing irreverence runs through the work, both in the self-portraits and the public commissions. Tilda Swinton becomes a willow-thin harlequin figure. A vice-chancellor and businessman-philanthropist have sat for Byrne; the results subvert all the habitual depictions of the Great and the Good. Ben Thomson, chair of the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, is painted with a large grin and holding a stick of dynamite. A work from 1973 features a Zappa-esque figure in flowered jacket. The spirit of Frank Zappa is appropriate.

But the far end of the exhibition reveals a different Byrne. With conté crayon he draws his children with a close-up delicacy. A son is depicted with his saxophone. A daughter watches television. Another is captured in sleep with a tenderness and emotion that can only come from a parental eye that has watched over his subject for years. While the big canvases favour swagger and display over acuity of character these last family close-ups are classics of the genre.



‘Sitting Ducks’ continues until 19th October