John Byrne obituary

<span>Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

The work of the Scottish painter and playwright John Byrne, who has died aged 83, was all of a piece. His characters and caricatures, on stage or canvas, all stemmed from a sly, literate sense of humour, a close acquaintance with popular culture, and a fierce political independence.

Byrne himself entered that realm of popular culture with two acclaimed drama series on television after 20 years of hard graft in his studio and in the theatre. Tutti Frutti (1987) was an explosively funny six-part BBC series about a chaotic touring rock band, the Majestics (“Scotland’s Kings of Rock”), led by Robbie Coltrane, and whose members include Emma Thompson and Maurice Roëves, with Richard Wilson as their increasingly dour and exasperated manager.

Throughout the 1980s, Byrne was a contributor to BBC Scotland’s long-running sketch show Scotch and Rye, but his second big personal success, also for BBC Scotland, was another six-parter with a musical background, this time a soundtrack of country classics, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1990), which starred Tilda Swinton as a Glasgow barmaid, John Gordon Sinclair as an investigative journalist and Ken Stott as a small-time criminal and drug-dealer; the Glaswegian underworld and tragicomic capers were a dramatic parody of the music’s narrative content.

Byrne fell in love with Swinton while working on the series, their happiness over the following decades making him more of a celebrity than he relished. Everything about Byrne was in his work and he even hid behind that right from the start, when he supplied a series of spurious “naive” paintings for his first major London art exhibition, at the Portal gallery in 1967, under his father’s name, Patrick McShane, “a retired busker and labourer”. He was soon rumbled.

He always looked and spoke like an artist, and executed an almost non-stop flow of self-portraits on canvas that were as revelatory and inquisitive (about himself) as any of those by Rembrandt or Velázquez. He even resembled the latter, with his untidy hair, bloodhound face and straggly beard, and, like all great self-portrait artists, could never be accused of narcissism. His most cited influences were Giotto and Magritte. He had no interest in landscape.

He was born into an Irish Catholic family, the son of Alice (nee McShane) and Patrick Byrne. Or so he thought. It transpired in 2002, thanks to a well-informed cousin, that his biological father was in fact his mother’s father, Patrick, his own grandfather. He insisted that his mother really did “love” her father, and regularly walked eight miles from the family home on the Ferguslie Park housing estate in Paisley, Renfrewshire, to see him. Later in life, though, his mother suffered from mental health problems.

Byrne was educated at St Mirin’s academy, Paisley, and, after serving an apprenticeship in the colour-mixing room of a Paisley carpet factory in the mid-1950s, went to the Glasgow School of Art, graduating in 1963. He won a travel scholarship to Perugia, Italy, worked in a Scottish television graphics department and returned to the carpet factory as a designer.

His reputation continued to grow, and he was the first living artist to exhibit in the new Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, in 1975. His show was not a success, and he did not exhibit again for another 16 years. He had discovered the theatre.

He added a three-dimensional depth to his graphic and painterly skills in his theatre design, notably for the Great Northern Welly Boot Show (1972), with the rising comedy star Billy Connolly. Connolly’s ebullient satire of the ship-building industry was a hit of the Edinburgh festival (the cast also included Bill Paterson) and made the trip south to the Young Vic in London. Byrne also designed the show’s posters, as he continued to do thereafter, and Connolly’s big pair of yellow banana boots, a signature prop comparable to Ken Dodd’s tickle stick.

He became the regular designer for John McGrath’s terrific Scottish 7:84 company, touring community centres with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973), a rampaging, rough musical theatre show charting the politically motivated Highland clearances through to the advent of the oil moguls, with the concomitant destruction of local culture and communities in the name of progress and money-making.

Out of that show, Byrne edged closer to the centre with his own first play, Writer’s Cramp (1977), which had started as a half-hour radio monologue and expanded into one of the most deliriously funny evenings I have experienced in a theatre. Three of the brilliant 7:84 actors – Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett – recounted, in a spoof arts documentary format, the sad tale of the fictional Nitshill literato, Francis Seneca McDade. Ironically, I suffered from critic’s cramp watching the show’s premiere on the 1977 Edinburgh fringe in a small studio space; all seats had gone, so I sat under one, which happened to belong to one of the actors’ mothers. Laughing became stressful.

I was on the floor, but Byrne was on a roll. He sourced the characters and setting of The Slab Boys (1978) in his Paisley carpet-factory days – quiffs, ciggies and rock’n’roll – and developed that play into an interconnected trilogy, and a BBC Play for Today in 1979. Candy Kisses (1984), at the Bush theatre in London, drew on his days in Perugia – he magicked a 1963 Florentine pensione on that tiny stage, riotously mixing up an art student, a draft dodger, Celtic terrorists and a Welsh department head of church townships.

More sedately, he designed a farcical Restoration comedy, Edward Ravenscroft’s London Cuckolds, for the Leicester Haymarket and Lyric Hammersmith in 1985. At the Royal Court in 1992, he resurrected the legend of two gay painters from Kilmarnock, Colquhoun and MacBryde, in a play of that title which followed the two Roberts – played by David O’Hara and Stott – as they shot to fame in the Soho of the 1930s, but crashed and burned in alcoholic obscurity in 1957.

As an adapter, he was an ideal fit for Gogol’s Government Inspector, providing a boisterous, irresistible version for the director Jonathan Kent at the Almeida, north London, in 1997. Gogol was relocated to a backwater somewhere near Paisley supervised by an apoplectic Mayor from Ian McDiarmid with Tom Hollander as the accidentally disruptive unofficial visiting official.

More recently, there were three Scottish versions of Chekhov (Brian Cox as Uncle Varick), and in 2013 he painted a wonderfully colourful roundel in the ceiling of the King’s, Edinburgh, showing flying figures, tragedy and comedy masks, and a sinister harlequin. From 1991 he exhibited regularly again and was made a member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 2007.

He was married to Alice Simpson in 1964, separated in the late 1980s, and was divorced in 2014. He lived with Swinton from 1989 to 2003, and married the lighting designer Jeanine Davies in 2014.

He is survived by Jeanine, and by two children, John and Celie, from his first marriage, and twins, Xavier and Honor, from his relationship with Swinton.

• John Patrick Byrne, painter, designer and playwright, born 6 January 1940; died 30 November 2023