MacBryde was born in Maybole, Ayrshire, to John MacBryde, a cement labourer, and Agnes Kennedy MacBryde. He worked in a factory for five years after leaving school before studying art at Glasgow School of Art from 1932 to 1937. There, he met Robert Colquhoun, with whom he established a lifelong romantic relationship and professional collaboration, the pair becoming known as "the two Roberts". MacBryde studied and travelled in France and Italy, assisted by scholarships, returning to London in 1939. He shared studio space with Colquhoun, and the pair shared a house with John Minton and, from 1943, Jankel Adler. MacBryde held his first one-person exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in 1943.
At the height of their acclaim they courted a large circle of friends - including Michael Ayrton, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and John Minton as well as the writers Fred Urquhart, George Barker, Elizabeth Smart, and Dylan Thomas - and were renowned for their parties at their studio (77 Bedford Gardens).
Influenced by Graham Sutherland and John Piper, MacBryde became a well-known painter of the Modernist school of art, known for his brightly coloured Cubist studies. His later work evolved into a darker, Expressionist range of still lifes and landscapes. In collaboration with Colquhoun, he created several set designs during and after the Second World War. These included sets for Gielgud's Macbeth, King Lear at Stratford and Massine's Scottish ballet Donald of the Burthens, produced by the Sadler's Wells Ballet at Covent Garden in 1951. During the 1950s, both MacBryde and Colquhoun lost the attention of the art scene, and as both had become heavy drinkers, serious artistic work became almost impossible. Since neither had any private means, they were reduced at times to near destitution.
Colquhoun died suddenly in London in 1962. Soon afterwards MacBryde moved to Ireland, where for a time he shared a house with Patrick Kavanagh, with whom he had become friendly in London. However, he was still drinking heavily and seems to have made no serious effort to paint again. The Times stated that MacBryde had disappeared into obscurity after Colquhoun's death.
Robert MacBryde died in 1966 in Dublin as a result of a street accident. Anthony Cronin, a friend of MacBryde and Colquhoun, describes them both with affection and respect in his memoir Dead as Doornails, as does the English painter, playwright and poet Arthur Berry in his autobiography A Three And Sevenpence Half Penny Man.
- "1913 MCBRYDE, ROBERT (Statutory registers Births 605/ 141)". ScotlandsPeople. National Records of Scotland. Retrieved 9 June 2018.
- "Mr. Robert MacBryde". The Times. The Times Digital Archive. 6 May 1966. p. 12.
- Devine, Rachel (7 March 2010). "Openly homosexual when it was still illegal to be so and gay people were actively persecuted, they made little attempt to disguise their relationship". London: Sunday Times. Retrieved 7 March 2010.
- "About Fred Urquhart". The University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 27 September 2017.
- Bristow, Roger (2009). The Last Bohemians: The Two Roberts - Colquhoun and MacBryde. Bristol: Sansom & Co. ISBN 1906593191.
- Biography at the Tate Gallery
- Robert MacBryde on the Gazetteer for Scotland
- An Anthology from X (Oxford University Press 1988). X (magazine) ran from 1959–1962. Edited by the poet David Wright & the painter Patrick Swift. Apart from contributions from MacBryde X also included painters such as Bacon, Giacometti, Freud, Auerbach, Bomberg, Kokoschka, et al., and writers such as W.H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, et al.