David Hockney met Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) for the first time in 1964, soon after moving to California. He struck up an easy and close friendship with Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy (b.1934), which became among the most important and influential relationships in his life. Hockney’s biographer Christopher Sykes observes that for the young Hockney, it was the first time ‘he had come across a gay relationship that was like a marriage’ 1
Hockney became a regular among the couple’s circle of friends, Sykes notes, ‘Christopher Isherwood’s diaries from this time show that Hockney led a social life that was every bit as relentless as his working life. At its centre was Isherwood and Don Bachardy’s house at 145 Adelaide Drive, Santa Monica where they presided over a southern Californian salon for philosophers, writers, and artists. At regular dinners held around their circular dining table, which come from a sale at the props department at Warner Bros., Hockney mixed with Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, the Stravinskys, Wystan Auden, Lauren Bacall and Tony Richardson.’ 2 The affable Hockney was a welcome guest in Hollywood circles and Isherwood introduced him to anyone and everyone; a decade later, in February 1976, Hockney was with Isherwood when he met David Bowie for the first time, backstage after a gig at the Forum in Inglewood, California.
Isherwood had a very different background to Hockney’s working class upbringing. He was born on his family's estate in Cheshire near Manchester and educated at Repton College and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, from which he was expelled. He taught in Germany from 1930 to 1933. Isherwood’s best known novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains, 1935, and Goodbye to Berlin,1939, were based on his experiences of pre-Hilter Berlin, which inspired John Van Druten's play, I Am a Camera, and which was later adapted into the musical Cabaret. He emigrated to California to work as a Hollywood scriptwriter in 1939 and became a US citizen in 1946. Around the time he met Hockney, Isherwood was writing his last novel A Meeting by the River, published in 1967, after which his writing focused more on autobiography. Both Isherwood and Bachardy kept diaries, extracts from which were published in 1983; they also collaborated on scripts, most notably the successful film Frankenstein: The True Story, 1973.
In early 1968, Hockney found a property close to Isherwood and Bachardy, he recalls ‘I rented a tiny little penthouse in Santa Monica, old-fashioned, built in 1934, which for California is very old. It was like being on the Queen Mary, with the mist in the morning, in winter, and it was very nice. They were very happy times; once we were in the house, I didn’t care if I went out to see anybody or not.’ 3
During the first half of this year Hockney worked on two double portraits, one of Isherwood and Bachardy in their living room; the other of collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman stood outside by their pool, surrounded by art from their collection. In preparation for his portrait of Isherwood and Bachardy, Hockney took photographs and made numerous drawings of the couple at their home in Adelaide Drive. Isherwood was well-used to sitting for drawings as Don was an accomplished portraitist and regularly made drawings of his partner. 4
Here Hockney’s portrait of Isherwood revels in the details of his buzz cut hair and bushy eyebrows, these areas of high detail contrast with the more fluid lines of the sitter’s shirt. Hockney spoke of the difficulty of getting this kind of drawing right - he wouldn’t allow himself to sketch out the image in pencil first, but would launch straight in with ink, the unforgiving nature of the medium providing the ideal discipline to attune one’s eye and hand. In an interview for his 1970 Whitechapel retrospective the artist declared ‘…if you want to work in line I think that it is the loveliest medium of all.’ 5 He later explained that,
‘To reduce things to line I think is really one of the hardest things. I never talk when I’m drawing a person, especially if I’m making line drawings. I prefer there to be no noise at all so I can concentrate more. You can’t make a line too slowly, you have to go at a certain speed; so the concentration needed is quite strong. If you make two or three line drawings, it’s very tiring in the head, because you have to do it all in one go, something you’ve no need to do with pencil drawings; that doesn’t have to be done in one go; you can stop, you can rub out. With line drawings, you don’t want to do that. You can’t rub out line, mustn’t do it. It’s exciting doing it, and I think it’s harder than anything else; so when they succeed? They’re much better drawings.’
Hockney’s large double portrait of Isherwood and Bachardy (Fig.1) was the first of the two oils to be completed and its success led Hockney to make a series of further double-portraits, including of other gay couples Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, 1968–69, and George Lawson and Wayne Sleep, 1972-5.
Hockney’s friendship with Isherwood and Bachardy was long-lasting. In 1970, Hockney holidayed with Isherwood in France just before the opening of his Whitechapel retrospective. In June 1976 when Isherwood was to be included in a show at the National Portrait Gallery, the couple came to England for a month and Hockney gave them a ‘Mr Whiz Tour’ of East Anglia, Oxfordshire, Scotland the Lake District and Yorkshire. Isherwood and Bachardy appear regularly in Hockney’s personal photo albums. In 1976, Hockney revisited his original double portrait, making a lithograph of the couple, this time with their poses reversed (Fig.2). This lithograph belongs to a suite of prints titled Friends, but, unlike many of the images from this series, where Hockney’s soft mark making echoes his drawings in crayon and coloured pencil, this lithograph has the same sharp detail as the present ink drawing, with Christopher sporting the same unruly sprout of hair. In the early 1980s the couple appear together again in Hockney’s new photo-collages (Fig.3).
Isherwood died of cancer on 4 January 1986, when Hockney heard the news he told Stephen Spender ‘I shall miss him a great deal. I felt very close to him. I have dug out an unfinished portrait of him in his bathrobe, and begun work on it.’
1 Christopher Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, A Pilgrim’s Progress, Century, London, 2014, p72 2 Ibid, p27 3 https://thedavidhockneyfoundation.org/chronology/1968 4 In 2019, Bachardy’s own, very beautiful drawings of Isherwood were the subject of the exhibition Dearest Sweet Love, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy at the Schwules Museum, Berlin 5 'David Hockney: An Interview', David Hockney, Paintings, Prints and Drawings 1960-1970, Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1970, p12 6 Nikos Stangos, David Hockney by David Hockney, My Early Years, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976, p158 7 Sykes, p227
Collection of Pat and Michael York, acquired from the above c.1971
Paris, Palais du Louvre, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, David Hockney: Paintings and Drawings, October - December 1974, cat. no. 55, p50 (text)
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