Gerard Byrne found refuge as a fledgling painter at the Botanical Gardens in Dublin. The works he created there and in Kew Gardens in London have earned him the artist in residence role at Botanical Gardens in Singapore. He spoke to Colin Gannon about his journey from working as an electrician to where he is today.
By Colin Gannon
London-based Irish artist Gerard Byrne always dreamt of becoming a famous painter. Before the acclaim and the exhibitions, though, it wasn’t always a sure thing.
The artist, born and raised in Finglas in North Dublin, started off life after school as an electrician. As he had no Leaving Cert, Byrne’s hopes of entering an art college were dashed.
Eventually, following his parents’ advice to get a ‘real job’, he began an apprenticeship as an electrical worker. He remained zealous about his art, keeping up his labour of love, but it was forced to the sidelines.
Over the course of a colourful and varied career, living across continents and state borders, he worked most notably as a lighthouse technician and a flying electrician installing generators in aboriginal settlements in the Australian outback.
Fast forward to 2019 and he is readying himself for an artist-in-residency at Singapore’s Botanical Gardens after years impressing people with his paintings of Kew Gardens and Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.
“At school, I wasn’t much good at anything else except painting, really. I used to paint all the time,” he tells the Irish World.
In fact, he failed art in school. On the day of his Leaving Cert, he learned watercolours were the only option for use — a type of paint he was unaccustomed with and had not yet mastered.
“I failed miserably,” he says. “But they had a re-check because [teachers] were saying, we have Gerry Byrne’s pictures hanging in our homes.”
When he was young, Byrne actually lived within walking distance of the Botanical Gardens. He perched himself inconspicuously in corners, painting everything he saw: the glass houses, exteriors, interiors. The plush, intoxicatingly green expanse of the Botanical Gardens was a refuge for him, particularly on bad days.
“You’d find the Palm House, which was warm; there were good lights; and the staff got to know me and allowed me to do what I wanted to do,” he recalls.
Over time, he became known for being a Botanical painter, despite such a tag usually associated with artists dedicated to capturing flora on canvases.
Byrne has since eked out a successful career in painting. His time here in the UK — five years in total, spent between London and Brighton — whacked his career into overdrive.
He holds a fondness for London, a place where he says had his most peaceful painting sessions, but Britain’s vote to leave the EU changed that and the ensuing toxic political atmosphere that emerged, made it impossible for him to stay.
“Brexit kicked in, so I thought: maybe it’s time to go home,” Byrne says.
“I personally took [Brexit] as (saying) that you’re not welcome here.”
Last year, he opened his own gallery in Ranelagh, in South Dublin, and lives in an apartment above his workplace. Ireland’s financial crisis and the death of the Celtic Tiger, Byrne believes, came close to killing the art business in Ireland.
But these days, he says, it is recovering, very lively, and full of competition.
An exhibition titled Inside Outside & Beyond, held last year in the National Botanic Gardens he grew so fond of capturing down the years, celebrated over 30 years of Byrne’s evocative, near kaleidoscopic paintings.
Just last year, the Irish Embassy in Singapore specially acquired one of Byrne’s paintings. The Ambassador there, Pat Bourne, asked him for more work to fill his bare walls.
He eventually met the Ambassador in Dublin, who told Byrne he had organised a residency in Singapore’s main Botanic Gardens.
“The gardens had been photographed so much — it receives over a million visitors every year — but it had never been painted,” Byrne recalls being told.
Due to the high levels of humidity, likely to tarnish the paintings, photographs of his original paintings will greet visitors each of its three entrances.
He tells the Irish World he is excited for the challenges that await him with this life-altering move.
When it comes to his artistic inspirations, he keeps it simple. “Basically, painting what I see: street scenes. I copied the masters at the time, like Van Gogh and Gaugin and Matisse, as a young kid,” he says. “At the same time, I’d just put a bunch of flowers on the table or a bowl of fruit and paint it.”
Unlike many artists of his kind, he paints with oil wet the whole way through — in a form known as Wet on Wet — ensuring there is no time for parts of a painting to dry.
Usually, he completes a painting in one sitting, starting and finishing on the same day. If you were pushed to place Byrne’s work into a specific genre, you’d almost certainly classify it as modern impressionism.
Yet, like most gifted stylists, he imbues his works with a personal flare and his artistic DNA flows across all of his work, no matter the style, object depicted, or location.
That said, he is drifting into other forms of painting — seascapes in Ireland, more abstract work for Singaporean exhibition — to stave off boredom and inertia.
He’s thankful he’s in a position of comfort to be able to do so. Back when he was a wide-eyed young artist, pining for attention and gratification, he daydreamed about having his own solo show.
To be really famous or one of art’s ‘immortals’, is his ultimate goal.
“Will the fame come? Probably after my demise, I don’t know,” he laughs.