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John Bryson, textile boss driven by love of arts and deep civic responsibility

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Accomplished cellist: John Bryson

Accomplished cellist: John Bryson

Accomplished cellist: John Bryson

John Bryson DL, who has died aged 90, contributed extensively to the worlds of business and the arts in Northern Ireland over several decades.

Although working for the family textile business Spence Bryson Ltd for over 40 years, and retiring as chairman when it was sold, throughout his working life and for many years afterwards, his sense of civic responsibility kept him actively involved in a broad range of areas in the local community.

John Buckby Bryson was born on December 10 1929, at the family home Huntley, Dunmurry, Co Antrim, the eldest son of George Herbert Bryson CBE and wife Rosemary (née Sinton). He had four siblings.

Mr Bryson was educated at Inchmarlo and then Winchester College, which he left in 1947.

He joined the family business the following year at a time when it would see healthy growth for the next two decades.

His time at the University Summer School of Perugia in the early Fifties instilled in him a lifelong interest in art and architecture, which resulted in many trips to the home of the Renaissance in subsequent years with his wife Rose (née Young), whom he married in 1957.

He was always immaculately turned out as his own father had been, shoes always well-polished, and would often wear a tie even to the most informal of occasions, something his children would tease him about.

There was the occasional exception to this such as the damp 1970s day in Ballycastle where he played in the parents and children event wearing a smart mackintosh over his tennis whites, with an umbrella in one hand and his racquet in the other.

In addition to running Spence Bryson throughout the Seventies and Eighties, when the Troubles impacted it and many other businesses, he was actively involved in several other organisations as a Council member or Chair including Richmond Lodge Girls School, the CBI, LEDU, the BBC, and the General Council of the Irish Linen Industry.

As a keen and accomplished cellist and pianist, Mr Bryson played in numerous ensembles and orchestras over the years including the City of Belfast Orchestra and the Studio String Orchestra, whilst also hosting regular string quartets at home.

His love of music led to involvement with the Arts including the Board of Queen’s University Centre for the Arts, the Northern Ireland Arts Council, and later as president of the Belfast Music Society. Over the years Mr Bryson and his wife hosted many visiting musicians who preferred the freedom and comfort of a private home to a city hotel. A stickler for punctuality, he would often play the piano prior to leaving home for an event or a party as a signal for Rose or the rest of the family it was time to go, normally resulting in them arriving early.

In retirement Mr Bryson remained busy. He continued his lifelong love of shooting which took him all over Ireland and beyond.

He was a very good shot and enjoyed rough and driven shooting equally. He was quietly proud of a Shooting Times certificate he was awarded for a right and left of Woodcock at Benvarden, Co. Antrim in the 1980s, which still hangs in the cloakroom amongst other shooting pictures. He also took a keen interest in wine.

He was knowledgeable and greatly appreciated fine wines but equally enjoyed finding the best bargains at any price.

It was not unknown for him and a group of likeminded oenophiles to swoop on a certain supermarket’s special champagne offers leaving empty shelves.

Mr Bryson sat on the Executive Committee of Bryson House (now Bryson Charitable Group) as well as the Northern Ireland regional committee for the National Trust, and the Board of the Ulster Independent Clinic.

As a Board member of the Belfast Civic Trust he contributed to the monitoring of the city’s built and natural heritage, and the quality of its new development. This led to his appointment as the Lay Assessor for the National Civic Trust Awards Scheme from 1999 until 2003, a role he relished.

After his long-time friend and colleague from Bryson House and the Belfast Civic Trust, Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, founded The Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust in 1995 to rescue and re-use some of the city’s most “at risk” historic buildings, Mr Bryson served as a Director until 2015.

The award-winning restorations of both the former St. Patrick’s School in Donegall Street in 1999 and Christ Church in Donegall Square North in 2003 were a source of considerable pride to him and he enjoyed the privilege of greeting His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales when he officially opened Christ Church.

Mr Bryson still found time to enjoy home and family life to the full, and the fruits of the Huntley garden of which he was immensely proud.

He was an expert apple sprayer but it’s fair to say that his wife Rose had more than a passing involvement in the success of the garden, which of course he knew well.

His broad-ranging service to the many aspects of Northern Ireland life was offered in a low-key manner without a desire for the limelight.

He is survived by his wife Rose and their three children. A service of Thanksgiving will be held at a later date.

Belfast Telegraph