John Byrne and Tilda Swinton: The painter and his muses

Artist and screenwriter John Byrne has a major exhibition of his portraits. His wife Jeanine features – and so does a former lover, a certain Tilda Swinton. He talks to Hannah Duguid about art and relationships

A portrait of Tilda Swinton by her former lover John Byrne shows her dressed in a dark Pierrot costume and mauve stilettos, one arm raised over her head in a ballet dancer's pose. A foot balances on a small pile of read scripts. She sits on a larger pile of scripts, which are unread. Her elongated face appears sharp, her hair's short, unkempt and vibrant red. The colour red's important because as Byrne points out with a wry grin: "She was a Communist at the time."

The painting feels emotionally complex – particularly when compared to more serene images of the painter's wife, Jeanine Davies, which also hang in the show. It's an affectionate if not overtly flattering representation. Pierrot's the sad clown or naïve fool, which seems a decision worth considering, but Byrne says that ideas just come to him, he doesn't think them through consciously. He says the Pierrot outfit came to Swinton from the fashion designer Christian Lacroix. When she wore it, Byrne says, with notable tenderness: "She looked very lovely."

Byrne occupies a unique position in Scotland's cultural life. He trained at Glasgow School of Art, which he left in 1963 as one of their star painters. But he found fame writing plays and television dramas such as The Slab Boys (1978), Tutti Frutti (1986) and Your Cheatin' Heart (1990). Early in their careers, he worked with Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Swinton. Throughout this time, he continued to paint and his life is reflected in some of the famous names on show in his exhibition of portraits at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

'Read & Unread' (2002/2004), John Byrne 'Read & Unread' (2002/2004), John Byrne Artists don't always look like artists these days but Byrne presents himself impeccably – a dark suit and cravat, with clipped white hair, a full white beard and moustache. He's handsome at 74, with a thick smoker's voice, strongly accented. An easy charm makes him enjoyable company.

He's a well-known figure in Scotland even though, as he points out, "I have no Scottish forebears." His family's Irish Catholic. He considers himself an outsider, someone who defies fashion and taste. Glasgow leads the way in contemporary art at the moment but Byrne has no wish to be associated with any hint of conceptualism in art, which he describes as, "bollocks".

"The art world is a frightening bunch of people," he says. "I'm on the outside and I don't want to be on the inside. I don't want to be part of a big gang and tarred with the same brush. I kind of do what I want and continue to do what I want."

His paintings, whether of famous friends, self portraits (of which there are many) family or scenes from his imagination, are executed with rigorous skill, but an old fashioned approach. He paints moody portraits and surrealist scenes, which don't follow current taste. Self portraits in various guises are often psychologically intense – a brooding inward gaze, or with religious symbolism such as the artist covered in thorns or a particularly dark self portrait in a camouflage jacket. His defiance, almost a refusal to engage with new ideas about art, doesn't always make him popular, particularly within Glasgow's art scene.

"Very often I get people who come and ask for a photo. But I also get abuse. People coming up to say, 'You fucking cunt you cannae paint to save your life.'

"I have to shrug it off because it happens quite often. People are very nice to you and they're also threatening and painful."

Not that he's without a desire for wider recognition as a painter. He reckons Outsider Art – which would include him – to be the next big craze.

His self-styled outsider status – "I was always an oddball," he says – along with a lifelong intellectual curiosity, may have been what drew him and Swinton together. He's the kid from Paisley who made it from the notorious Ferguslie Park housing estate to a life of fame as an artist and writer – it's a remarkable achievement. She experimented her way from the social constraints of an upper-class life, to a career that's gone stratospheric from when she began her relationship with Byrne in 1990. He agrees that their intellectual energy united them.

"It does not matter what background you come from," he says. "My intellect was enriched by the background I came from. Everyone seemed more alive and all the streets were alive: morning noon and night.

"I have an identity as very Scottish and it is what made me, and Paisley in particular. Every bit of information I ever needed came from there."

He had a difficult time from the press when a story came out that he and Swinton were living at their home in Nairn, Inverness as a ménage à trois with her new lover – the painter Sandro Kopp who she met on the set for The Chronicles of Narnia in 2004.

"It was really horrifying, people following you and coming to the door. I hope they [the press] all go down because the ménage à trois is totally and utterly untrue. I never lived as a threesome ever. Why would you do that? God Almighty. It made me look like a total idiot, like I was downtrodden, and it was nothing of the kind."

Love present: 'Janine' (2001), John Byrne Love present: 'Janine' (2001), John Byrne He and Swinton found their way through the scandal. Byrne married Jeanine Davies – a stage lighting designer who he now lives with in Edinburgh. It all seems very civil. For this show, Swinton lent her paintings by Byrne of their twins Honour and Xavier (born in 1997) and a particularly beautiful one of his wife, which interestingly, Swinton owns.

"She's in America at the moment but Tilda will come to see the show in a couple of weeks. She wouldnae come to the opening because she'd become the sole focus if she were around. She'll come in her own good time."

Byrne may have a rebellious streak, but it's a soft one, and he presents himself lightly. As a man who wrote comedy his exhibition titles are particularly sharp. He called this exhibition of portraits: Sitting Ducks.

John Byrne: Sitting Ducks, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh ( to 19 October. John Byrne: Dead End, Bourne Fine Art, Edinburgh (0131 557 4050) to 30 August

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi


Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015


Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore