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Scottish Design Icons: Pop-up stage set

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. This month, Yanyang Laird reflects on how one particular object takes her back to the stories of her childhood.

“It is painted just like a children’s book!”

That’s the first impression I had when I saw this pop-up book. It was painted by John Byrne for the original touring production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, John McGrath’s influential play about the history and exploitation of the Highlands.

A man sits cross-legged in front of a large pop-up book.
Artist and playwright John Byrne with the pop-up set.

Byrne designed the stage set as a book , which measures over 3 x 4m when open and is over 2m tall. It includes five pop-up scenes from the play, including a Highland landscape, a croft house, a poppy-strewn war memorial and a Native American Tipi.

The book was designed in 1973, the same year I was born in Beijing, China. I remember vividly that when I was little, we didn’t have any electronic devices at all and few families had a TV set. The main entertainment after a long school day was reading colourful children’s books. Those books contained the most beautiful illustrations; the great artwork and the vibrant colours made the stories unforgettable.

A brightly coloured Chinese painting depicting fantasy figures walking in a line.
Painting depicting a scene from the 'Journey to the West'. The painting is a decoration on the Long Corridor in the Summer Palace in Beijing, China.

One of my favourite books was Journey to the West. It is a historic Chinese novel that is considered one of the four classics from the Ming Dynasty. It tells the story of a Buddhist monk, Master Shi Fu, and – like a fairy tale – several animals with human characteristics, who travel west to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. Monkey has extraordinary powers that he used to overcome demons and monsters. His friend Pig is always making a mess of things and generating lots of humour in the process. Before Master Shi Fu can find the scriptures, he must surmount 81 obstacles, including overcoming supernatural beings like a cow demon, the spider beasts and a living skeleton.

Every single page contained a scene painted by the finest artist in China. These include Monkey battling in heaven with the Jade emperor’s army, a magic cave where the spider beasts live and a dragon prince who transformed into a white horse as the monk’s steed.

A woman standing in front of a museum display.
Yanyang Laird in our Scottish Design Galleries.

Chinese and Western paintings have different characteristics. Chinese paintings have been created for more than 2000 years using brushes, ink and Chinese pigments. They are sometimes drawn on silk or, more commonly, a special kind of rice paper called Xuan Zhi. By comparison, Western paintings often use a wide range of colours, filling the whole canvas. In addition, light and perspective are used to make three-dimensional illusions, which makes the paintings look more realistic.

This can be seen in the pages of the pop-up book. Painted with oils, the compact design made of cardboard meant the set was cheap to make and could be transported on the top of a van and quickly set up in village halls as it toured around Scotland. The actors would then turn the pages during the play to reveal the next scene.

John Byrne’s striking pop-up book is a fantastic creation. It is also the perfect example of imaginative design, just like the stories of my childhood!

Yanyang Laird moved to Scotland in 2006 and volunteers at Dundee Chinese School where she teaches Chinese language and culture.

This article is part of a collaborative project with Amina MWRC to train local Muslim, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women as freelancers to deliver guided tours of our Scottish Design Galleries in both English and their native language.