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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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump