The Sitter's Tale: James Ivory

New Faces at the National Portrait Gallery: a `sitting' weekend is recalled by one half of Merchant Ivory
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The Independent Culture
The National Portrait Gallery wanted to commission someone to paint portraits of me, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. We have all known Don Bachardy for years and years, and we asked for him to paint us. The NPG also knew him and in fact at the time when the three pictures were unveiled he was having a show there of his early drawings.

We all went to my house in upstate New York one weekend. The works were painted in the house - it was the middle of summer and we would stop to swim, eat or nap at intervals. I remember it was very hot and muggy, and over the weekend he did three different portraits of each of us.

He wasn't that quick - you couldn't leave for about two hours, once he had started. I got mesmerised by sitting. It's like early photography - you're afraid to move, as you think you'll disturb what he's doing. It was like being under hypnosis.

When he had finished we all looked at them, and sort of murmured which one we liked best, but the actual selection was left to the National Portrait Gallery. The three they chose were hung and the gallery threw a smashing dinner, and that was that - we had been unveiled. Sometimes old friends of mine would see the three works, which initially hung as a triptych, and they would recoil from mine. They said that I looked like a plantation owner, but I liked that.

I think Don is a great painter. I thought he brought out, in my portrait, a side of me that has always been there, but that people don't know about, or don't see. A person who has had a life spent making movies is bound to have a strong will. Mine is the face of man who likes to get his own way.

Don had drawn me years before - when I was about 40. He did a line drawing. When he had finished, I decided I wanted to buy it. I also bought one of the three portraits, one of the ones not selected by the NPG.

INTERVIEW BY CHARLOTTE MULLINS

James Ivory's 1996 portrait by Don Bachardy hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (0171 306 0055).

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