Don Bachardy: Portrait of the artist as an old man

“I was his creation. He was entering into my life so intimately and that’s exactly what I was responding to – such incredible support.”

The portrait artist Don Bachardy says his best work was the drawings he made in 1986 as his partner, Christopher Isherwood, lay dying. It was the end of a relationship that had lasted 33 years, beginning on Valentine’s Day, 1953, when Isherwood was 48 and Don was 18.

Don was working in a Hollywood supermarket when they met, sketching profiles of movie stars from glossy magazines. Isherwood nurtured his young boyfriend’s talents, becoming his first live sitter and leading him, ultimately, to what Bachardy calls “the major moment of my career as an artist”.

“I could have drawn him in my sleep,” he tells me over coffee at his editor’s house in Holland Park, west London. “If I lived another 50 years, I’d never have as many drawings or paintings of anybody.”

“When Chris was dying, I cancelled all my sittings and did nine, ten, 12 drawings of him a day, under impossible circumstances. It gave me something to do instead of just standing by wringing my hands.”

On the morning we meet, Bachardy, now 79, is fresh off the plane and feeling “all in a pep”. He’s wearing Levi’s, sneakers and a plain black Tshirt, and tells me how sad and disoriented he feels to be in London. “I’ll calm down in a minute,” he says, in a distinctive transatlantic drawl. “I feel secure at home in the house we shared for so many years and so vulnerable when I leave it.”

Bachardy and Isherwood flaunted their relationship in an era when visible same-sex couples were rare. “When we first went to New York together, that Christmas in 1953, a serious rumour went round town that Christopher had brought a 12-year-old with him from California,” Bachardy recalls, staring fixedly at his feet.

“I really did look young for my age,” he chuckles, looking up. “But that didn’t stop him. He insisted on not hiding me away.”

It was Isherwood who helped Don find his vocation, sending him to London in 1961 to study at the Slade School of Art. The pair wrote playful love letters, indulging their fantasies and recasting themselves as “the animals”: Isherwood the stolid, reliable workhorse Dobbin; Don a sexy, mercurial cat.

Who originated the animal talk? “Chris loved Beatrix Potter, and you see I’m a kind of unconscious mimic,” he says. “It’s something I use in my portrait work: I really identify with the person that I’m looking at. In a way I’m doing a self-portrait in character as my sitter.”

Throughout the letters, Isherwood urges Bachardy to seek “consolation” abroad (“ONLY NOT TOO MUCH!!”, as he wrote in one). He introduced him to his circle of London friends – Richard Burton, Cecil Beaton, the director Anthony Page (with whom he had a prolongued affair) – while stressing the need for discipline and perfectionism in his art.

I suggest Isherwood seemed a little heartbroken when alone in Santa Monica. “Can you see he was encouraging me the whole time?” Don says. “I was his creation. He was entering into my life so intimately and that’s exactly what I was responding to – such incredible support.”

Today Bachardy’s portraits of the most important actors, artists and writers of the second half of the 20th century hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He paints every day but confesses he is running out of steam. “I can still do it but I’m slower. That’s something Chris and I had in common: whatever we did, we always gave it our best.”

As he says this, he beams. “You see, he’s still helping me! He’s going to help me to die. I’ll say to myself, again and again: ‘He did it. So can you.’”

Goodbye to Christopher: Bachardy painting Isherwood in the 1980s. Image: Rex/Geitgeist Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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13 political statements from the Oscars 2017

In the age of Trump, Hollywood got satirical.

Yes, it’s that time of year again: when Hollywood’s best and brightest come together to celebrate themselves, and maybe throw in an oh-so-vaguely left-wing comment about how “we need the arts right now more than ever.” But in the era of Donald Trump, did things get more caustic at the 89th Academy Awards? 

Here’s a round-up of the big political shout-outs of the night.

1. “This is being watched live by millions of people in 225 countries that now hate us.” - host Jimmy Kimmel, above, in his opening monologue.

2. “I want to say thank you to President Trump. I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist? That's gone, thanks to him.” - Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

3. “In Hollywood, we don't discriminate against people based on what countries they come from. We discriminate against them based on their age and weight.” - Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

4. “Some of you get to come on this stage and make a speech that the president of the United States will tweet about in all-caps during his 5am bowel movement.”- Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

5. “Meryl Streep has phoned it in for more than 50 films over the course of her lacklustre career. She wasn’t even in a movie this year – we just wrote her name in out of habit. Please join me in giving Meryl Streep a totally undeserved round of applause. The highly overrated Meryl Streep, everyone.” Jimmy Kimmel, referencing Trump’s comment that Streep (below) is “overrated”.

6. “Nice dress by the way – is that an Ivanka?” - Jimmy Kimmel to Meryl Streep

7. “Now it’s time for something that is very rare today: a president that believes in both arts and sciences.” - Jimmy Kimmel, while introducing Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs

8. “Inclusion makes us all stronger.” - Cheryl Boone Isaacs

9. “This is for all the immigrants” - Alessandro Bertolazzi, above right, accepting the award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling for Suicide Squad.

10. “Flesh-and-blood actors are migrant workers. We travel all over the world. We construct families, we build life, but we cannot be divided. As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I'm against any form of wall that wants to separate us.” - Gael Garcia Bernal, while presenting the award for Best Animated Feature

11. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and from the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law which bans immigrants' entry into the U.S. Dividing the world into the 'us and our enemies' categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” - The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi, who boycotted the ceremony over Trump's Muslim travel ban. His award was accepted on his behalf by former Nasa scientist Firouz Naderi and engineer/astronaut Anousheh Ansari, above.

12. “We are so grateful to audiences all over the world who embraced this film with this story of tolerance being more powerful than fear of the other.” - Zootopia director Rich Moore, while accepting the award for best animated feature

13. “All you people out there who feel like your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back. For the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.” - Barry Jenkins (above) while accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

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Now listen to Anna discussing the Oscars on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.