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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Leader: Mark Carney — a rock star banker feels the heat

Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith.

On 24 June, the day after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom resembled a leaderless state. David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister after his humiliating defeat. His closest ally, George Osborne, retreated to the safety and silence of the Treasury. Labour descended into open warfare; meanwhile, the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared terrified by the challenge confronting them and were already plotting and scheming against one another.

The government had not planned for Brexit, and so one of the few remaining sources of authority was the independent Bank of England. Its Canadian governor, the former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Carney, provided calm by announcing that Threadneedle Street had performed “extensive contingency planning” and would not “hesitate to take additional measures”. A month later, the Bank cut interest rates to a ­record low of 0.25 per cent and announced an additional £60bn of quantitative easing (QE). Both measures helped to avert the threat of an immediate recession by stimulating growth and employment.

Since then the Bank of England governor, who this week gave evidence on monetary policy to the economic affairs committee at the House of Lords, has become a favoured target of Brexiteers and former politicians. Michael Gove has compared Mr Carney to a vainglorious Chinese emperor and chided him for his lack of “humility”. William Hague has accused the Bank of having “lost the plot” and has questioned its future independence. Nigel Lawson has called for Mr Carney to resign, declaring that he has “behaved disgracefully”.

At no point since the Bank achieved independence under the New Labour government in 1997 has it attracted such opprobrium. For politicians faced with the risk, and the reality, of economic instability, Mr Carney and his colleagues are an easy target. However, they are the wrong one.

The consequences of loose monetary policy are not wholly benign. Ultra-low rates and QE have widened inequality by enriching asset-holders, while punishing savers. Yet the economy’s sustained weakness as well as poor productivity have necessitated such action. As Mr Osborne consistently recognised when he was chancellor, monetary activism was the inevitable corollary of fiscal conservatism. Without the Bank’s interventionism, government austerity would have had even harsher consequences.

The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly taken the opportunity to “reset” fiscal policy. He has abandoned Mr Osborne’s absurd target of seeking to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and has promised new infrastructure investment in his Autumn Statement on 23 November.

After years of over-reliance on monetary stimulus, a rebalancing is, in our view, necessary. Squeezed living standards (inflation is forecast to reach 3 per cent next year, given the collapse in the value of sterling) and anaemic growth are best addressed through government action rather than a premature rise in interest rates. Though UK gilt yields have risen in recent weeks, borrowing costs remain at near-record lows. Mr Hammond should not hesitate to borrow to invest, as Keynesians have long argued.

The Bank of England is far from infallible, of course. In recent years, its growth and employment forecasts have proved overly pessimistic. Mr Carney’s immediate predecessor, Mervyn King, was too slow to cut rates at the start of the financial crisis and was ill-prepared for the recession that followed. Central bankers across the developed world, most notably the former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan, have too often been treated as seers beyond criticism. Their reputations have suffered as a consequence.

Yet the principle of central bank independence remains one worthy of defence. Labour’s 1997 decision ended the manipulation of interest rates by opportunistic politicians and enhanced economic stability. Although the Bank’s mandate is determined by ministers, it must be free to set monetary policy without fear of interference. The challenge of delivering Brexit is the greatest any British government has faced since 1945. Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith on this epic task.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage