“I, too, had to maintain a certain degree of detachment, and indeed to want and expect nothing of him; the paradox will always remain that, if David Bowie had not been David Bowie, then David Bowie and I could have been friends.”
Edward Bell, 2017
Edward Bell first encountered David Bowie when the so-called chameleon of rock turned up unexpectedly at a private view for the British visual artist’s first exhibition in 1980.
Bell had studied painting at Chelsea School Of Art and photography at the Royal College; not only was Larger Than Life his first show but it also opened the then-new gallery. Edward freely admits he didn’t know much about the singer when introduced that night by fellow photographer and another Bowie collaborator, the late Brian Duffy.
They last spoke in 2013, less than three years before the Dame’s demise. In the intervening period Bell and Bowie hung out in London, Venice and Los Angeles, collaborated on record sleeve projects and maintained sometimes sporadic contact, via a Swiss letter drop address and out-of-the-blue phone calls.
The story of their unusual acquaintance across the decades charmingly unfolds in Unmade Up…, an airy but deeply personal memoir and celebration of Bowie’s unique style and vision. The book is presented as a series of richly illustrated vignettes that include a wealth of original artwork and photographs, many of which have never been published before.
After Bowie had been photographed by Duffy in his Pierrot costume, Bell asked him to strip away some clothing, muss his hair and smear his make-up. Then he took studies for the cover portrait. “This was an image no longer, wistful, pretty, safe or fey, but a glimpse of glamour in its dangerous extremity; decadent and blatantly seductive,” writes Bell, who said that Bowie stipulated that his hair colour be changed “because in America I’m known as the red haired bisexual.”
“I was never part of any set, so that show was made up of portraits of people who were around at the time,” says Bell down the line from his home on the Shropshire/Wales borders. “I wasn’t technically-minded; instead of getting the lighting and everything else ‘right’ I tended to colour photographs, change the background and do a bit of montage. Eventually I started to paint from the photographs I’d taken.”
Bell was struck by Bowie’s uncanny presentational abilities as a portrait subject. “It was like dancing, where your partner is predicting the next move,” says Bell. “When you’re taking photographs you’re supposed to be the one in charge. I’d think ‘He should turn a bit to the left’ but before I could say it he would do that, to just the right degree. It was magic.”
And so Bowie became a regular visitor at Bell’s Earl’s Court basement flat/studio, where they listened to music and discussed art and fashion. Occasionally the pair would adjourn to Bell’s local or the Chelsea Arts Club, where they were joined by Derek Boshier, who designed the sleeve of 1979’s Lodger and was at the time giving Bowie painting lessons. The artist also recalls a visit to Derek Jarman’s flat to discuss a film project, Neutron. Nothing became of it, though Bowie, ever the synthesist, did incorporate some of the ideas into the Ashes to Ashes video a few months later.
In the Eighties, Bell admits, he became addicted to heroin, but relocation to Italy aided a full recovery and in 1989 he and Bowie became reacquainted after a chance meeting in Venice. Fast forward a couple of years and Bell was commissioned to provide the artwork for Tin Machine’s second album, spending time in LA around Bowie and his bandmates.
Over the course of the ’90s and ’00s Bell sent occasional letters and images to a ‘secret’ address in Switzerland, and though there was never a response, he later found out that they had all reached their destination.
“Instead [of writing] he would, completely out of the blue, telephone,” writes Bell. “Years might even pass, then I’d be shopping at Tesco, or digging a vegetable patch on the west coasts of Ireland, or sitting on a Welsh hilltop painting a sky, when the mobile would ring:
“‘David who?… Oh, that David.’”
“I felt compelled to write them [the memories] all down, with the desire to share them. This book is written from the perspective of someone whose path, once upon a time and intermittently, crossed that of a man called David Jones, who also happened to be David Bowie.”
Unmade Up… Recollections Of A Friendship With David Bowie is available here