From Bette Davis to Divine: Don Bachardy On 50 Years of Portraits

Don Bachardy has been a portraitist his entire life. As a youngster, he would draw pictures to entertain himself and his classmates. As a native Californian, Mr. Bachardy has also been a Hollywood hound for much of his life. When Don's mother wanted to see a film, she would take him and his brother along, even if that meant keeping them home from school to do it.

Don is one of the lucky few whose passions in life have come together in perfect synergy. Encouraged by his lover, the novelist Christhopher Isherwood, Don studied art in college and, thanks to Isherwood's Hollywood connections, embarked on an artistic adventure painting portraits of famous and non-famous alike. In addition to portraits of Hollywood stars like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, Don spent countless hours creating portraits of Christopher Isherwood, including a famous and haunting series of portraits as Isherwood's health deteriorated near the end of his life.

The Mister and I had a chance to chat with Mr. Bachardy in his home in Los Angeles. Our chat covered a little bit of everything - life with Isherwood, the history of the Santa Monica home the two shared and that Don still calls home, and, of course, his life as an artist. Here's a transcript of our chat with Don Bachardy and his 50+ years as a portrait artist:

Captain Dapper: Do you find that as people sit for you, do you have to do something to put them at ease, so that they let a little more of themselves show through?

Don Bachardy: No, they can’t help but let themselves show through, because there they are. They’re in that chair, on that marble stand, and there’s nothing else to do but be themselves. And even if they’re embarrassed or shy, they can’t hide. And often I’m as embarrassed as they are – and if I didn’t have a brush in my hand to protect myself, I wouldn’t dare look at them like I look at them. It’s something that I’ve done all my life. I was taken to the movies very early, and became a devoted moviegoer. My mother loved movies, and took my brother and me with her when we were – I was seeing movies when I was three and four years old. And my mother and brother and I were a real trio. While my father was slugging away at Lockheed Aircraft, we were downtown watching movies – sometimes going to three in a row. And my mother would even occasionally take Ted and me out of school, if she wanted to go downtown to a movie and didn’t have anyone to go with, yes! So I’m sure it’s what gave me my interest in the way people look. Those giant close-ups. I got hooked on them. As I say, I wanted always to look at people really intently. Inventing myself as a portrait painter was the best excuse I could think of.

CD: So before you were doing portraits in earnest, were you just drawing..?

DB: I drew all as a child, and in the beginning, when I was really young, I just made up people – made up faces. And in grammar school, some of the other kids used to ask me for my drawings. So I made myself popular by drawing. And it was always of people. When I got older, I started working from photographs of people, usually movie actors, because I thought I knew them from seeing them in their movies, so I could bring something extra to the photograph. And the drawings I did weren’t interesting as drawings; I don’t think any drawing done from a photograph can be interesting, because it’s not live. It’s what I call photocopying. And what I was doing without realizing it was developing the accuracy of my eye, because my drawings were very recognizable. And I showed Chris, say, half a dozen of the drawings I was doing when we met, and he recognized them all immediately and was impressed, and he said, “Well, have you ever worked from life?” And I said no. And he said, “Well, you should try.” And in fact, proposed himself as a sitter. He was the very first person I did a drawing of from life. And it was a very peculiar situation because when I copied from photographs, I put in everything I could see. But of course photographs of movie actors were invariably retouched, so that was a fairly safe practice. Chris, who was wonderful looking at 48, still a great beauty, he was nevertheless – there were lines, wrinkles, pouches. I put in everything! Just sparing nothing – every detail, because it was fascinating! When finally I was finished and he got up and came around and stood behind me to look at what I had done, there was a long moment of silence, because it turned out to be the oldest looking drawing of him I ever did. Because I put in, meticulously, every single age indication. And it looked exactly like him at the same time. And it was a long moment before, after a gulp, he said, “You know, it’s good!” Phew! But once we were getting together, he continually urged me to try art school, but it took me four years because I was scared. I was afraid of failing. But finally, I relented and took a six-week summer course at Chouinard, which was the best art school here. It was all the way downtown. But it was just six weeks long, but before the end of the first week, I already – I was in my third year of college at UCLA, and I stopped UCLA and signed up for the full course at Chouinard.

CD: Now, I know you studied in London for a time also...

DB: I went for four years to Chouinard – and I didn’t just go there; I practically lived there. I drove all the way downtown for the 9 to 4 day, and then I’d drive all the way back. And Chris would say, “Let me see what you did,” which was just wonderful, because it gave me impetus to keep going. Because my parents lived in Hollywood, some days I would, after the 4 o’clock class ended, I would go and have an early supper with them, and be back for the 7 to 10. And if I wasn’t having dinner with them, I would maybe go to a movie and then go back to the 7 to 10 class. And having learned from college the drudgery of just taking the classes that were necessary to get some kind of degree or certificate, I just took all the classes with a live model. Whatever the teaching was, if there was a live model, I was there drawing and painting. And after four years of that, I had the idea of going to London to the Slade School. And I did. It was time for me to try my wings, I think, and I used the Slade School as a reason to be on my own from Chris. So, my departure was heartbreaking for us both, because when it came right down to it, I was as scared of London as I was frightened of going to art school for the first time here. And we just wept buckets before I left. And from the moment I got to London, we were just weeping on the phone; we were so lonely for each other. But soon, at my implorings, he came over and joined me. Let’s see:  I got there the end of January, and I had the greatest good fortune. I stopped in New York, because we had been seeing Richard Burton and his first wife, Sybil, here. He was making movies, and we became good friends. And so I went to see Camelot, which he was doing with Julie Andrews, and went backstage to say hello, and there he was with Sybil. And they said, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “Well, I’m on my way to London to go to the Slade.” And they said, “Well, why don’t you stay in our house in Hampstead? Richard’s got the next three months in the show, and the house is empty!” And his brother and wife lived right across the street. I said, “Oh, that’s very sweet of you, thank you, but I’ll just go and find myself a little flat in London.” And so I went off, and the second day I was in London, I started looking for a flat. Not only were they incredibly dingy, but they were so expensive! And after two or three days of looking, I dared to call up Sybil and I said, “Is that offer still good?” And she said, “Of course, darling!” So, I was told how to contact his brother Ifor, and I met them in Hampstead, and they took me just across the street to a dear two-story house with a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. A bathroom upstairs and a little half-bathroom downstairs. It was just perfect! And so when Chris came over, it was a snug little place for us to live, and we could even entertain there. We could cook for our friends. And of course, when the three months were up, what did Richard do? He went to Rome to make Cleopatra! So he met Elizabeth Taylor! And Chris and I had the house for a year, without rent! Wasn’t that just the greatest good fortune?

CD: Yeah, just to fall in your lap just like that.

DB: Yeah. A perfect house. And Hampstead was right on the northern line; it was a direct line to the Slade School. I didn’t even have to change trains. It took me less than fifteen minutes to get to school each morning. Of course, I was going in mid-term, so I wasn’t asking for credit. So when the term came to an end after a couple of months, but long before it came to an end, I had started asking everybody I met if they would sit for me. As I had here. When I was going to school, I only started doing sittings with my friends, and it just seemed a natural progression to start doing that in London.

Read more of our interview with Don Bachardy after the jump...

Captain Dapper: And then you were by proxy building a portfolio for yourself.

Don Bachardy: And that portfolio by the time August came by was quite considerable, and I lots of portraits of well-known people. And I took them to the Redfern Gallery – I had met one of the men who ran the gallery – and showed them, and got an offer for a show in October. It was just the downstairs gallery, and they had another artist showing – gosh, his name has gone out of my head; he was a well-known scenic designer – theatrical designer – and he was showing his designs for sets and costumes. And I don’t think he ever forgave me, because the opening night for us both, everybody was downstairs! Because of Chris, and because of the famous people I had been working with, everyone was downstairs. And it started E.M. Forster and John Gielgud and all kinds of theater people. It was just Francis Bacon. Imagine!

CD: What a fantastic opening for a first show!

DB: For a first show! And I sold lots of portraits. They were all pencil drawings, mostly, and they were, what, 25 pounds each. And like a fool I sold things that I would adore to have now. I sold my best drawing of Forster for 25 pounds! But you know, young and starting out as an artist, sales mean something. I don’t know if you noticed, that best drawing I did of him was used by the publishing company when Maurice was published. And it’s just the head of the drawing; it actually included his hands. But oh, I wish I had that drawing back. 

CD: So I’m curious, because your mother was taking you to the movies, she must’ve been a fan of movie stars. What was her reaction to the fact that you were drawing these people?

DB: Sadness, I’m sorry to say, because she realized that I was out of the nest and gone, and nothing would ever get me back. I tried to keep her in my life as much as I could, and when I was going to Chouinard, I would make a point of stopping and having dinner a couple times a week, anyway. And my father refused to meet Chris for fifteen years, because it was the Fifties. He thought it was part of his parental duty to disapprove. But my mother, of course, met Chris right away and she was very shy. She’d had polio when she was five, and it left her with a lame foot and a big inferiority complex. So she was very hesitant to meet new people. [breaks down] I’m sorry, I’m very hyper today. I’ll be alright in a minute. Thinking of those first encounters of my mother and Chris… She was grinning from ear to ear, after one or two meetings, and pushing her face forward to be kissed. It was such a revelation to me. And I think it surprised her. You see, she was always wary of people. She recognized in him instantly who he was, and that he wasn’t threatening. And by “who he was,” not that he was famous, but that he was a good, sweet man. 

CD:  From the get-go you were having this entrĂ©e into this world of celebrities, yet you’ve always drawn, also, just ordinary people – everyday people.

DB: Oh yes. The famous people I’ve drawn are not even 10% of all of the work I’ve done.

CD: I didn’t think it would be.

DB: I do everybody. I always instinctively – I can only give my best. Like Chris: he could only give his best to his writing. And that same way, both of us understood how to do what we did. And so the unfamous people I was working with, I tried just as hard to make my pictures like them as I could. And of course, that was the best practice I could be giving myself for the occasions when I had somebody world-famous sitting for me. And trembling at the sight of them! And often holding my pencil with a shaking hand. And the night before dreading the sitting, wondering how I could ever get myself in shape to face the person. And sometimes I didn’t even know the person. Yes, but what good training, not only for my art, but for my character. It was like going into the lion’s den.

CD: Did it ever get easier? Like the more you drew famous people, did it get easier?

DB: Well, I gained confidence in my own ability. And though I was still scared – still awed – I knew I had a better chance of proving myself to whomever it was. And my routine was always to not put all of my eggs into one basket – to do three drawings, if I could. And working very quickly. The first one was a warm-up; the second one was zeroing in; and then the third one was, I hoped, the coming together of everything. And it often worked that way. And then eventually, I got to the point where I could dare myself to – I gave up pencil because I ruined a few good drawings with bad cans of spray fixative, which you have to use with pencil. So I switched to pen and ink, and that’s totally unforgiving. You put a wrong line down, and it stays. 

CD: Do you actively direct your sitters – like, pose them – or just the body, and let their face do, the expression be whatever they’re going to give you – or how much direction do you like or not like to give?

DB: You know – and I’ve only been thinking about this in recent times – my sitters would often wonder. They would expect to be posed. All I really wanted from them was stillness. And if I could get them to look me in the eye – because, first of all, I started suggesting that to them because I found that if they looked me in the eye, they would pick up from me what it was I was after – which was, attention and stillness. And if I can persuade them or if they get it right away, it’s a participation. Because I began to realize, it’s the most perfect form of collaboration. It’s a back and forth, and what I’m doing with eye contact is using my sitter’s energy to help me. It’s coming to me, and then I’m giving it to what I’m doing. So that eye contact is now just a basic of what I do. And if you have eye contact, you no longer have to tell somebody what to do, because if they’ll allow it, that’s real communication. And soon, there’s a back and forth established that my sitter, almost by the end of the sitting, knows as well as I what it’s all about. And that’s how I do it. I used – I started asking my famous sitters to sign and date my pictures because I thought nobody would believe me that I hadn’t copied a photograph. Of course, once I started working from life, I could recognize just by looking at a drawing of anybody, whether it was done from life or not. But the average person looking at a portrait, if it was somebody famous and they knew it was done by a 21-year-old, they would say, “Well, you must’ve copied it from a photograph.” But I realized years later that it was perfectly appropriate to have my sitter’s signature on the piece because it’s a collaboration.

CD: So would you say then that you prefer drawing everyday people?

DB: You know, everyday people because I’m interested in people, they make me dread the celebrities. Because the celebrities are always, even if they’re kind and patient and reassuring, it’s a challenge. And somebody I know has the time and nobody else is begging for them to sit, grabbing their attention – yes, it’s less strain on me.

CD: And the celebrity is always being looked at, so I’m sure there’s a bit of a glaze or a distance because you’re just another person looking at them, so you’ve to establish the –

DB: That’s true to a certain extent, but nowadays, when I started, it was a little bit different. There were still more artists working from life. Now, there’s none of us left. I only know two artists who work from life, really. Although David Hockney, he does work from life sometimes, but he also works from photographs sometimes. Totally from photographs in his pictures of people. Divine, for instance, sat for me as a road to David. I was just a boot camp for David. He knew that I knew David, and his dream was to sit for Hockney. So what did I do? I invited David down to share Divine with me at one of our sittings. And of course Divine was thrilled. So then David invited Divine to sit for him for a big canvas painting in his studio, and invited me, tit for tat, to come and join him; to share Divine. So I gave them a good hour, hour and fifteen minutes head start before I arrived, and what did I find? The dream of Divine’s life, sitting for David Hockney? On the dais, in the chair when I arrived, was Divine…asleep! And David said, [mimicking David huffing] – a brush in hand, waiting, how to rouse Divine.

CD: So were able to finally wake him?

DB: Sort of. But when David got Divine to return, I know, he started by taking photographs. And so the painting of Divine, I know, is painted really largely from the photographs. 

CD: I wonder if he was nervous, and had a little too much to drink or something before he got there?

DB: I don’t think so. Because he’d been sleeping for me, too. But I thought, well, for David, he’ll perk up. I thought, well, and really, I’d been having trouble with Divine, so when I went to David’s I said to myself, “now maybe I’ll get something really good of him – he won’t dare sleep!” But there he was.

CD: So do you have a routine, then, when someone sits for you. Do you have everything prepped in advance? You’ve got your palette laid out.

DB: In the old days, as I said earlier, I used to prefer to work with people in their homes, where they lived. But yes, I really hate leaving my studio now, because in my studio I can drip paint on the floor, and also I have my own way. The light is wonderful. And also, it’s slightly easier to intimidate people!

CD: Oh, that’s true! Come into my parlor! I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s a very good point. They’re on your turf. So it works to your advantage, in all ways.

DB: But actually in the early days, it was the other way around, because by working with people in their houses, it forced them to be more gracious than maybe they might be if they were strictly doing me a favor, because I was a guest in their house. So they couldn’t say, you’ve had enough of me! 

CD: Get out! So, looking back on your work, which pieces, if you could name a handful, stand as the most representative of you as an artist? It’s a difficult question, perhaps, to narrow it down.

DB: Well, we talked earlier of that drawing of Forster, and that was in 1961. I didn’t dare ask him to sit until Chris came over, because he was very kindly, but he was also strict in his judgment of people. An assessor of behavior of his friends. And I knew that about him. So when I did ask him for a sitting, I went to his place, his flat, and I did a first drawing of him. And of course I wanted to do two more. But at the end of the first drawing – and I’d just taken what he did; when he sat down, it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I didn’t dare ask him for eye contact. So he sat there and he was looking away, and he was kind of slumped in his chair. I did a pretty good drawing of him, but of course, it was a warm-up. But he assumed that the sitting was over. And I was intimidated enough by him, I didn’t beg, and I was afraid to raise his ire. So I had just this one drawing which was very unsatisfactory from my point of view, and I showed it to Chris, of course, and told the story, also Joe Ackerley. He and Morgan were very good friends, and Joe was one of the few people who could censure Morgan. So, I showed Joe the drawing of Morgan and told him more or less what I’m telling you now, and Joe went back to Morgan and with a view of getting Morgan to sit again, persuaded him by saying that I wanted to do more than one. Anyway, a second sitting was done, set up, and I did three drawings. But I was so keyed up for it that that first drawing of the second sitting was the best by far of all four. And even though I still didn’t dare to ask him to look at me, instead of slumping down like this, he was up, and held his head up. And when he first looked at the drawing, he laughed because he thought he looked so imperial! And he was actually showing me something that he wasn’t aware of showing people, and he saw it immediately in the drawing. He wasn’t the kindly old man that he thought that most of his friends would see! The grandeur came out. And that’s the best one I ever did of him.

CD: And then beyond Forster, beyond the celebrity portraits through the years, I’m sure there have been drawings you have done, again, of the typical person, that you’ve –

DB: It’s always – I always hope that when the two come together that I will be in my best working condition and able not to feel the grandeur of my sitter so much that it interferes. I’ll be in prime working state and be able to do my best work with somebody really famous. It’s wonderful when the two can come together

CD: I was just re-reading Stars in My Eyes and again saw your portrait of Bette Davis, which is just – well, all of them, but that one in particular is just incredible.

DB: And well, you probably read, “I’ll give you one hour, and that’s all! I was too good to you!” 

CD: When you were talking about having a shaky hand and being so nervous, she was one of the first people that I thought of that would’ve made me nervous. She and Barbara Stanwyck would’ve been the two that I would’ve really petrified me. So I can imagine in your shoes how intimidating that must have been!

DB: Oh, I mean, to get Bette Davis to sit for me! Jezebel was just when I was four, and I knew all about that movie. The red dress, and the Life Magazine full-color page of her in Jezebel and in that dress, and it was black in the color picture, because a real red dress didn’t photograph dramatically enough. And so they made it a black dress. And so you know, as a child, that was just wonderful information for me. And of course she was an intense favorite of mine for years. And oh to get at her! It was Roddy McDowall who asked her especially to dinner with Chris and me. He set it up for me so sweetly. And that’s when I was able to ask her. That was out here, and she said, “Well, I can’t do it now, but if you come to Connecticut, I’ll do it then.” And we spent that whole day together. And even I knew none of those of those first three drawings were what I could do, because, I mean, she was really too nice to me, in a way. Because it was too much of a social encounter with her. But I was thrilled by that, and of course I still wanted a crack at her, to do that 

CD: What you did! What you were able to do.

DB: Yes. And as I say, I think, in the piece, none of those big Hollywood star actresses would’ve been capable of saying, “That’s the old bag.” That she could say that about herself and not wonk me over the head, and sign it and date it anyway. As tough as she was in many ways, she had that amazing ability to be objective about herself.

CD: That honesty about herself. Contrary to some of the experiences you had with Ginger Rogers and others who were so meticulous in their critiquing afterwards:  “Well, that’s not I” or “the spacing is too much between my nose and mouth.”

DB: And coming on as a “fellow” artist! So that she just criticized me right down to the tiniest detail, and I couldn’t refuse it because she was a fellow artist!

At this point, Mr. Bachardy gave us a tour of his studio.

Don Bachardy: This picture, Mary, she was a very reluctant sitter, and she sat for a first picture, and it was OK, but I knew I could do better. I asked if she would sit again, but she said she had to do something and she couldn’t do it that day. I said, “If I do it very quickly?” She agreed, and I did that in literally between fifteen and twenty minutes. I couldn’t have done it without having done the first one, but that was warming up, and the fact that she actually put pressure on me, I knew it was like Davis. I knew that second sitting was my last chance, so I had to do it. And it’s something I’m very pleased with, because it was done under maximum pressure. It’s really very like her. I think you would know her on the street from this picture.

Captain Dapper: It’s so alive. There’s such a vitality to your pictures.

DB: Good. That’s a quality you can only get from life. That’s what’s wrong with working, doing portraits from photographs. The photographers have all the fun. He’s had the live sitter. And even if the drawing is crude, and that is crude, but if I can get that life, that animation, that’s the whole point. It’s the living creature.

CD: It seems you’re recording their energy as much as you’re recording their physicality.

DB: Yes!

CD: And what I wanted to tell you about those last drawings you did of Mr. Isherwood, they’re so extraordinary because you can see as he was leaving, in a way – as the energy was receding through the pictures – it’s palpable.

DB: Oh yes.

CD: Yet, they’re beautiful. They’re like these postcards of this journey that the two of you were on, this collaboration, and then he bid his farewell.

DB: He was always a perfect sitter for me. And then in those last months, last weeks, he was restless, moody; he was unfocused; he was sleeping. I was really doing it by his presence. And I knew the face, the head, so well, that I only needed a second, as it were, to do each feature, because I knew him in my mind. But his presence was still powerful.

CD: Yes, you had this sense memory, but his presence – it was about that energy; tapping into it. It’s palpable.

DB: Yes. And of course I knew he was slipping away. And as ruthless as I am when I am working, it was also the most intense way of being with him, of looking at him. And I was as close to him as I am to you. That’s really what I needed: that intense closeness, being with him, that was my farewell to him. Just getting him in my head so that I could never get him out. And I never will. I’ve still got him in there. And he’s powerful.

CD: I was going to ask you if you still feel his energy around you here.

DB: If there’s anything beyond this life, I’ll get it with him. I think he’s waiting for me! That’s the essence of whatever belief I have.

CD: Well, in the way of capturing the energy of your sitters, you can’t help but think there’s much more going on than just this physicality that we hold ourselves within.

DB: And then there is an energy going between us, and if one can really connect with it. Well, it’s done wonders for me. It’s done whole pictures for me.

For more of our visit with Don Bachardy check out: Dapper Home: A Visit to Portraitist Don Bachardy's Home Studio. You can also learn more about Don and his work at his own website: DonBachardy.com.

The Mister and I will be forever grateful for Mr. Bachardy's generosity in welcoming us into his home and answer all of our questions. And I'll be forever indebted to The Mister for transcribing this entire session.

Image: Jason Loper

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