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.’”