Byrne, Samuel Michael (1883–1978)

by Sasha Grishin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Samuel Michael Byrne (1883-1978), miner and artist, was born on 10 July 1883 at Humbug Scrub, near Gawler, South Australia, and named Michael Eldrige Samuel, son of James Burns (d.1890), a blacksmith from Ireland, and his Australian-born wife Elizabeth, née Pope. In 1885 the family moved to Thackaringa, New South Wales, and later to nearby Broken Hill. Following his mother's death in 1892, Sam was brought up by his aunt Emily Tapsell. He attended Broken Hill Superior Public School until 1898, then began work in the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd's mine. On 20 December 1910 as Samuel Michael Byrne he married with Anglican rites his cousin Florence Pope who came from a South Australian farming family; he registered his change of name in 1941. For fifty-one years he worked as a miner, both as an underground labourer and surface engine driver, until he retired in 1949.

Starting to paint in the early 1950s, Sam was partly guided by May Harding, an art teacher at Broken Hill Technical College. He won prizes at local art shows and was encouraged by the Melbourne painter Leonard French who introduced him to a number of gallery-owners. Sam Byrne exhibited to critical acclaim at the Rudy Komon Art Gallery, Sydney, in 1963 and 1968, with 'Pro' Hart at the Australian Sculpture Centre, Canberra, in 1968, and later with the (Kym) Bonython Art Gallery, Adelaide.

Essentially self-taught, Byrne used a miniaturist technique, disregarding perspective and most academic painting conventions. Although he produced some water-colours, he preferred oils or synthetic enamels on masonite, and sometimes sprinkled silver-lead ore on his pictures to make them sparkle. His work revealed his socialist leanings, particularly in his narrative depictions of the Broken Hill strikes of 1892, 1909 and 1919-20. A prolific artist who frequently produced numerous versions of the same theme, he mainly painted scenes of Broken Hill, full of exact details of mining methods, rabbit plagues and pub life.

His distinct 'primitive' or 'naive' style of painting, with its bright palette and graphic articulation, is usually discussed in the context of the Australian bush painters Henri Bastin and 'Pro' Hart. Some of Byrne's better-known works include 'The Silver City' (1960), Broken Hill Civic Art Gallery; 'Tar and Feathering, 1892 Strike' (1964), Mildura Arts Centre; 'Turks Fire on Picnic Train, Jan 1st 1915' (1964) and 'Waltzing Matilda' (1962). His work was included in the survey exhibition of Australian naive painters at the Benalla Art Gallery in 1976.

Upright and slim, with a wide grin, Byrne loved music and dressed in a pin-striped suit when he visited Sydney. He painted in a rusty, tin shed behind his home and, as if to illustrate his boast 'I'm as old as the city myself', produced from memory a faithful visual chronicle of Broken Hill. Some of his paintings bring to mind parallels with Samuel Thomas Gill and the English artist W. S. Lowry. After he turned 80, Byrne suffered increasingly from glaucoma and arthritis, and the quantity and quality of his output declined. Survived by three of his four sons, he died on 24 February 1978 at Broken Hill and was buried in the local cemetery. A small retrospective of his paintings was held at the Gallery Art Naive, South Yarra, Melbourne, in 1979; his work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, most State collections and in private collections in Australia, Europe and North America.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Banfield, The Innocent Eye, exhibition catalogue (Benalla, Vic, 1976)
  • E. Lumbers, The Art of Pro Hart (Adel, 1977)
  • G. Lehmann, Australian Primitive Painters (Brisb, 1977)
  • B. McCullough, Australian Naive Painters (Melb, 1977)
  • R. Moore, Sam Byrne, Folk Painter of the Silver City (Melb, 1985)
  • Art and Australia, 2, no 1, May 1964, p 10
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1963, 8 June 1966, 24 Oct 1972
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 May 1977.

Citation details

Sasha Grishin, 'Byrne, Samuel Michael (1883–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byrne-samuel-michael-9654/text17031, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 27 June 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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