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?

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge