Interview: playwright and artist John Byrne on his portraiture exhibition

'A lot of it is stuff I've not seen since I did it, drawings of my children, things like that'

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Interview: playwright and artist John Byrne on his portraiture exhibition

It was a chance meeting with an Edinburgh councillor on Leith Walk that eventually led to Sitting Ducks, painter and playwright John Byrne's show of rarely seen work that opens at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this month before touring to Inverness. Having suggested to Byrne that it was about time he had a major show in the capital, the councillor wrote to the National Galleries of Scotland, who agreed, and the wheels were duly set in motion for this exhibition of more then 50 works drawn mainly from private collections dating as far back as the 1960s, many of which have never been seen publicly before.

‘It was just stuff I remembered that people had bought,’ Byrne muses, ‘so I made a list. A lot of it is stuff I've not seen since I did it, drawings of my children, things like that.’ There are self-portraits too, including one from the early 1970s ‘which can be dated from the fact that I'm wearing bell-bottomed jeans’.

Not everything on show will be complete, however, including an eight-foot diptych of Billy Connolly, which has been on loan ‘in perpetuity’ to the People's Palace in Glasgow, where only one half of the painting could be found. Such a loss sits with the recent rediscovery of sketches for a mural Byrne painted on a gable end in Partick in the 1970s, which were found in a skip next to the old Third Eye Centre. ‘I think they'll be a bit more careful at the National Gallery,’ Byrne says.

A new publication will accompany Sitting Ducks, along with assorted merchandise. Byrne twinkles at the prospect. ‘They put your face on a plate or a tie or something,’ he chuckles. ‘Which I'm not averse to at all.’

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 14 Jun–Sun 19 Oct.

John Byrne: Sitting Ducks

A full-scale overview of John Byrne's long career as one of the best-loved and most individual visual artists in the country, focusing on his portrait work and gathering 50 key works from drawings to large-scale paintings, including iconic paintings of Tilda Swinton, Robbie Coltrane and of course Byrne himself.

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