It’s a warm summer evening in 1998 and I am approaching a small block of red-brick flats just before hitting Sloane Square in London. I ring the bell at my destination and am greeted by a warm and weathered face that would not be out of place in a crofter’s cottage on the Orkneys.
This is the Scottish playwright John Byrne. He puffs gently on a roll-up and ushers me in amidst the howl of crying babies and the rear view of a woman in a bathrobe, ironing. It was like a scene from Look Back in Anger. We move along a narrow passage with paintings, drawings and framed textiles from floor to ceiling. We arrive at a small sitting room that seemed to double as a studio. "Would ye like some tea?" said Byrne in his distinctive Scottish tone. So why was I here? I'll explain.
At the end of 1997, the then design director of Royal Mail, Barry Robinson, commissioned me to design and art direct Royal Mail's contribution to the millennium celebrations. This was to be 48 individual stamps to tell the story of the past thousand years. The project would span 1999 to 2001. It was probably one of the most challenging and wonderful projects of my life as a designer, and I relished the prospect. It involved me in meeting and working with an extraordinary array of artists, designers, and photographers, from Bridget Riley to Antony Gormley and from Don McCullin to David Gentleman.
The reason I was at the home of John Byrne was because he is not only a brilliant writer, with The Slab Boys, Your Cheatin’ Heart and Tutti Frutti with a BAFTA award for the latter to show for it, but he is also a wonderful painter.
I first came into contact with his work when I met the folk music producer Bill Leader back in the late 1960s – he had just produced an album for a relatively unknown singer called Gerry Rafferty. Along with his then singing partner Billy Connolly, they were called The Humblebums. Leader showed me the cover of their new album: I thought it beautiful.
Bill told me it was an artist who went by the name of Patrick. I later found out that he exhibited at the Portal Gallery not far from where I was based in Mayfair at the time. At that point, Byrne was trying to earn a living from his painting – he’d attended the Glasgow School of Art from 1958 to 1963, where he was awarded the Bellahouston Award for painting in his final year – but had a difficult time until he had a brilliant idea. He sent a small, rather naïve-style painting of a Panama-hatted man to the Portal Gallery, which specialised in exhibiting naïve painters similar to Alfred Wallis. Byrne claimed that the little painting was the work of his elderly father, Patrick: a one-time busker and now newspaper seller at Paisley Cross. The gallery liked what they saw and asked to see more of ‘Patrick’s’ work. Byrne set about painting another half-dozen in the naïve style of the first. It resulted in a one-man sell-out show and instant acclaim.
Fast forward to that evening in 1998 at John Byrne’s flat. I wanted to commission him for one of the Royal Mail millennium stamps on the topic of the medieval migration to Scotland.
The millennium stamp by Byrne.
We sat talking about the subject over our tea until I was aware that the woman who was ironing was now standing in the doorway. “This is Tilda,” said Byrne.
Above two paintings of Tilda Swinton
I looked up and saw the glowingly ethereal face of Tilda Swinton swathed in a bathrobe. Byrne mentioned that Tilda had recently given birth to their twins, and that explained the howling on my arrival. She was clearly exhausted and I was puzzled by the modesty of their accommodation, but this was when Swinton was still very much the art-house cinema muse and was yet to crack Hollywood and the big time. Well, she did that and the rest is history. Not many years after Byrne had finished my stamp project, he and Swinton had parted and gone their separate ways.
Now at ’75, Byrne’s play Slab Boys has recently been revived at the Glasgow Citizen Theatre and he continues to work in his studio each day, only taking breaks for a fag or to keep the wood-burning stove topped up.
Byrne in his studio.
He was a long-term friend of the late Gerry Rafferty and had co-written some songs with him, along with designing many of his album covers, including Stealers Wheel. He also painted a number of Rafferty’s guitars. In turn, Rafferty wrote a song dedicated to Byrne entitled Patrick My Primitive. Take a listen here.
Gerry Rafferty's guitar.
More recently Byrne was commissioned to paint the ceiling mural at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh. You can see a time-lapse film of its creation here.
Byrne with his ceiling mural at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh