A Profile of John Byrne, based on an interview with Frances Devlin-Glass and Felicity Allen
I’m used to royalty giving children multiple names. But John Byrne’s family was a fiercely nationalist one. It was the Sheridan Le Fanu part of John Francis Sheridan Le Fanu Byrne’s name that originally caught my attention, and it is perhaps homage rather than blood that explains it. John’s adoptive mother’s mother bore the name ‘Sheridan le Fanu’, before it was conferred on her son, but so far no link to the Irish gothic novelist has been established. She migrated to Canada in the 1930s and, spurning normal migration patterns, returned to Dublin in the 1950s. The cold and wet of Canada was not good for her lungs, though it’s unlikely that Dublin’s wet, coal-laden air was any better for her.
John’s birth mother, to his grief, is lost to history and to him. She gave birth to him in the now notorious home for unmarried women, Sean Ross Abbey, near Roscrea, County Tipperary and featured in the film Philomena, and gave him up for adoption when he was six months. Strenuous efforts to find his mother, whose name (O’Sullivan from Cork) and age are the only facts he has about her, have been impeded by the destruction of records at the home. His adoptive parents did not inform him, but he guessed as a teenager, and learnt for sure at age of twenty-one from a cousin over afternoon tea at Bewley’s.
John’s early upbringing in middle class Dublin was blessed in many ways. His father was fifty-one at the time he and his wife took John into their home. It was a patriotic home where English was the first language and Irish encouraged. He was sent to a Montessori kindergarten, Rehoboth House, Dolphins Barn, run along the lines of Pearse’s school, St Enda’s, by two benign ladies. It took in girls and boys, and was an oasis for the artistically gifted child, promoting music, art and dance.
A defining event in his life was winning an Art competition run by Texaco Oil. Annual 3-month holidays in Bray with cousin Phyllis and Aunt Teresa (‘Binky’, his mother’s sister) , and Uncle Charles who liked to treat his nephew to pantomimes at the Gaiety, and Switzers’ Santa at Christmas time, were part of the idyll, which was shattered when his mother died of respiratory disease when he was only 12 in 1972. Binky then helped his father raise the child. In the year after his mother’s death, he was sent as a border to Clongowes Wood College later, not in his best interest, as it was virtually mandatory to participate in sporting activities, which were not to his taste. He did not flourish there.
John’s father, Gearoid Bróin (baptised Gerald Byrne), had had a vivid few decades prior to adopting John. An
autodidact, he had left school at 14, and moved in with his maternal grandmother after his grandfather’s death living at Usher’s Island. It was a republican stronghold. His reading had led him in revolutionary directions, and he joined the (radical) Keating Branch of the Gaelic League. Speaking Irish and holidaying in the Blasket Islands, and cycling in the Gaeltacht, he was co-opted into Sinn Féin circles.
John’s father’s mechanical skills made him useful in the printing of An Phoblacht, their newspaper. Becoming an IRA strategist, he spent some years in the Curragh Internment camp, John is not sure of the details, as he heard different reports. He did not speak about these experiences to John. He specialised in blowing up offensive colonial statues like that of Lord Gough (an equestrian statue that was first decapitated, and finally destroyed on the third attempt in 1961). His father survived until 1991.
John recalls a heavy-duty Catholic childhood, with daily mass in Lent and men’s sodalities as part of the mix. He had his own role to play as a very young child in Church and Sinn Féin circles hand-painting customised Republican Christmas cards (embellishing nativity scenes with harps, tricolours, rising suns and shamrocks), and painting devotional saints’ statues made of plaster. Sinn Féin and the church were apparently both adept at harnessing young talent. These responsibilities, however, entrenched his sense of an artistic destiny.
John attended a ‘cram’ school in 1979 to prepare for matriculation at Trinity College, where he later studied Art History and German under Anne Cruikshank and Desmond FitzGerald. The curriculum was thorough and traditional: much Greek and Roman art, as well as Prehistoric Irish Art and Archaeology, Late Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, and finished with Corbet. In a curious pre-figuring of the direction John’s art would take much later, he wrote a final-year thesis on the English portraitist, Sir Stanley Spencer.
A difficult time working for an advertising agency in Dublin in his twenties provided spare time for reading, for continuing his German at the Goethe Institute, and for holidays in Germany and Denmark. It was a stimulating time to broaden and deepen his study, and it prepared him for four to five years as part of the last cohort of students at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in the glory days, when it was heavily subsidised and students used the ballroom of Leinster House as their studio. It was a period when the women students were well-heeled, but he remembers many of his male colleagues being anything but. He was in the final year cohort which was allowed to paint in that venue and did so with snow falling through decrepit skylights. Subsequently, the College was consolidated in the old Jamesons Brewery granaries in the late 70s.
His study trajectory would ultimately place him in West Berlin for another period of postgraduate art study in his thirties. His father did not initially approve of his study (he’d have preferred his son to become a teacher of Irish in Dublin), but he finally reconciled himself to having an artist son. Being somewhat familiar with Berlin and enamoured by the romance of Berlin, he made the break to Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste. Curiously, there were other Irish artists with whom he shared a studio in Berlin – Michael Cullen, Eithne Jordan, and Lorcan O’Byrne. John felt he matured and developed in this unstructured study environment, very occasionally visited by the Professor and developing a professional work ethic which has continued in his life. There he was influenced by George Baselitz.
Returning to Dublin in the early 1990s to tend his dying father, he got work as an artist in several interpretive centres, including the one at the Chapter House of Christ Church, and with the Palatines in Adare, West Limerick. Such work involved collaboration with University College Dublin historians and archaeologists to develop scenarios. With the death of his father, and a month later his Aunt Binky in 1991, and soon after his Uncle Charles, his life was again in crisis. This time, an Australian, Christopher McDermott, whom he met in Dublin, and emigration were to prove the resolution. He followed Christopher to Hobart in 1994, but, unhappy there, he took up more study at the Victorian College of the Arts, and completed an MA on a scholarship at Monash.
In Melbourne, John operates out of a studio in Fitzroy. His current work is concerned with the nature of masculinity. Although ostensibly portraits, his images of faces and bodies are not traditional portraits and are concerned more with a sense of anonymity and distance as opposed to pure characterization, more related to types and reflections on presentation. These paintings draw upon his background in design and illustration.
His art school training was traditional in the sense that there was an emphasis on drawing from the figure and classic painting techniques. In recent years, he has concentrated on drawing and watercolor as it has provided him with the clarity and lightness of touch for which he strives. Of particular interest to him as a figurative painter is the artist’s relationship to photography which in recent years has come to the fore because of the ubiquity of photography in the digital age. Painting from the live model was once mandatory for the figurative/representational painter, but this has changed dramatically and is now not considered not strictly necessary (although some would disagree). The ‘image’ as portrayed by the artist to a world wide audience through social media outlets such as ‘Instagram’ and ‘Pintrest’ has revolutionized how people perceive the art-making practice.
Interview conducted by Felicity Allen and Frances Devlin-Glass, and subsequent interviews and documentation by Frances Devlin-Glass.