Portrait of a Friendship


Arts & Culture

Portrait of Simon Akam, by Moussa David Saleh.


When we had to make things right, we went to the French House. The pub stands on Dean Street, in Soho, in central London, near the Algerian Coffee Stores, where the windows are stocked with Hazer Baba Turkish delight, and the sex shop whose window flashes LEATHER RUBBER NEOPRENE. Inside the pub, there are framed cartoons by Michael Heath. They served cidre long before international booze conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev ventured into that spelling.

That was where, in 2016, I met my friend David for crisis talks. The matter at hand was a painting. The canvas lay four miles to the northeast, unfinished, in a studio in Dalston. Despite its distance, the painting lay between us that night, the crux of our disagreement.

I always thought of David Saleh as my friend who could draw. I met him at university, a decade or more before, when he contributed cartoons to the student newspaper that I worked for. They were elaborate, anxious drawings in ink, filled with grotesque faces and tapering legs. They were beautiful, if profoundly dark. David had drawn obsessively since childhood. After university, he, to my disappointment, took his first class degree in history and became a lawyer. I became a journalist and later, perhaps, a writer. Four years ago, David did as he had always said he would—and as I had never quite believed—and left Slaughter and May, the most white-shoe of London law firms, to pursue his art. Illustration came first; he had drawn before for Fabergé and various newspapers, and for a while he contributed a weekly spread to the European issue of Newsweek. But on another occasion, in the French House, where cartoonists have long gathered, David listened to one prominent veteran illustrator wax drunkenly about the painter he might have been. He decided he did not want to just do hack work for periodicals. He wanted to paint in oils.

I applauded this desire. I felt my attempt to write at greater length and with greater vim than is permissible within the confines of newspapers lay in the same vein. As he determined to become a portrait painter, David needed an initial portfolio of work. He called a troop of his friends and asked if they would sit for him. The deal was simple: you would not be paid, you would not own the portrait. The latter stipulation warded off some aspirants. I brokered an addendum. I would sit, as long as I could record our conversations and later write about the process.

In the end, it took around nine months, the central portion of 2016. Each Thursday evening, I cycled north from my home in South London, over London Bridge, to David’s studio on Ridley Road in Dalston. The block lies in the bull’s-eye of London’s gentrification. There is still an African market below, with pigs’ trotters, turmeric root, and conger eel for sale. The steps outside the studio smell of piss. But an outlet of the upmarket burger chain Lucky Chip had appeared (it later closed, to David’s delight), and Harry Styles from One Direction celebrated a birthday in Dalston as early as 2013. By the strictest measures, by the time we started the portrait, Dalston was already over. As ever, in contemporary London, money had scorched a venue for creativity.

We developed a routine. I would message David and ask if he wanted food from Kashmir Kebabish, a kiosk downstairs with silver trays that brimmed with curries. David would often say no, but regardless I tended to buy him food. Both our financial situations were relatively precarious, but I felt his was more so, and it was important he got a square meal. In the studio, I would sit in the chair with its position marked out with tape on the floor, my eyes affixed to a spot on the far window. I was, David would tell me much later, when it was over, a mediocre model. I was fidgety and often distracted. The red light on my recorder winked on. He would paint and we would talk. That process continued until, months later, we reached my mouth. At that stage, David banned conversation and we listened to podcasts.

As the process continued, the classic portraiture exchange took place. David took a likeness of me in oils on canvas, wearing the waxed Belstaff motorcycle jacket I had coveted for years and finally obtained. In turn, I gained a fuller impression of him, as an individual. I knew David well when we started; I knew him much better when we had finished.

I came away with a sense of David as a mixture of the exotic and the familiar. He is half Lebanese, and, for as long as I have known him, his father, whom I have never met, has run a commercial enterprise of uncertain provenance in Central Africa. My abiding memory of David at Oxford, the image that remains in my mind across the years, is of standing with him on the cobble stones outside the Radcliffe Camera library. I cannot remember the details of our conversation, but I do remember his garb: tracksuit trousers with the calf zips loosened, worn, I think, over thick socks and studded boots. David was dressed for English rugby practice, from which he had just come. Here was the other side to his father’s background. David’s mother, who had worked as an air stewardess, met his father in Cote d’Ivoire in the 1970s. I imagined that encounter as a poolside meeting in an immediately postindependence Africa. There would have been body-fitting swim trunks, long drinks by the pool, Series III Land Rovers on red dirt roads, and over all of that, the gentle despotism of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, suzerain of postindependence Ivory Coast. Later I checked the exact details with David. “My mother was doing a stopover in Abidjan and was out one of the nights with her crew, having dinner at the Golf Hotel,” he wrote to me in an email. “My father was also there, drinking with friends (and penniless apparently), but confident and drunk enough to go up and ask out my mother (he called himself George, which he calculated was easier on Western ears , and which is absolutely not his name). She politely declined and stayed with her crew, so he in turn invited the whole crew out; they accepted, and they went on from the Golf to a different location, where they continued drinking and dancing into the night. So began their courtship.”

David’s parents lived separately for most of their marriage; his mother set up home in Surrey, south of London. (She later moved to Manchester.) David went to school in Guildford, the most suburban of English commuter towns, from whence stockbrokers wend their way into London on the 7:17. As such, David also hailed from John Betjeman territory, the land that poet once riffed on as “full Surrey twilight! Importunate band! Strongly adorable tennis girls hand!” Just as David worked the paints together with turpentine so he himself was a blend of the exotic and the quotidian. Dad, mysterious, was in Brazzaville—mum, knowable, was suburban. I asked David how he felt about his mixed heritage. “I love it,” he said. “Being honest, I definitely feel more British, because I was born and brought up here, and English is my first language.” David wishes he speaks Arabic, but does not.

The other element of David’s personality that firmed in our sittings was his relationship with women. Once, several years ago, a friend of mine and I had coffee with David in the cafeteria at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. She announced to me afterward that she could never see him again for the sake of her relationship with her boyfriend.

David’s adventures with women have long been a source of quiet amusement to me. As he established himself in his studio, he blurred in my mind with the figure of Ralph Barnby, the interwar artist and prolific womanizer who features in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series of novels (Barnby was possibly modeled on the painter Adrian Daintrey). As we sat, I received regular updates on David’s tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, interspersed with dispatches from London’s “alternative” nightlife scene. One Thursday evening, I entered the studio and found David working on an illustration of a bound woman inside a triangle, which he explained was a gift for said girlfriend. He had, David explained, been scouting pornography in order to find “the right set of eyes.”

David’s own narrative has often been that he is drawn to “complex” women. When I raised this with my friend from her passing encounter on Trafalgar Square, she presented a different take. She argued in a WhatsApp message that the women who David frequented were in fact paragons of modern independent femininity, individuals, in her words, “who were able to stop at tipsy, maintain healthy relationships with other females, and prepare meals for two without a visceral suspicion of what this represented.” It was only David that turned them into “love worn husks, their jagged nails competing with jagged-edged tongues to tell the story of their pain and survival, refugees searching for fixes, however short-lived.”

As I sat for David, I formed an image of him as the kind of man who could take otherwise well-adjusted women and make them think that journal was a verb.

When I asked David to mull on his relationships with women, he gave a lengthy stream of consciousness reply, taking in his heterosexual orientation, his nervousness about answering such a question, potential parallels between his attitudes to women and my own, and his undeniable interest in meeting new people. He then asked me not to write any of that, gathered himself and announced, in unconscious tribute to the lyrics of Canadian crooner Michael Bublé: “I want to meet someone in real seriousness, but arguably, maybe, I’ve not met her yet.”

This trope crossed into the subject matter, too.  As the project continued, an increasing number of gamine women appeared in the studio. I never met them, but saw fractions of their faces, expanding out on canvas from the eyes, with which David often began. I knew David was experiencing difficulties with his portrait of our friend Mark (a man with a challenging forehead), one of the few other men sitting. I wondered if he might abandon it. An invitation from David to, as it were, come up and see the etchings was an offer with dangerous magnetism. In the interests of artistic diversity, I felt it was important that at least one man featured in the final collection. I therefore stayed on the wagon, even when, a month in, David demanded he restart from the beginning. You can do that once, I explained. You can never do that again. (Mark experienced the same false start.)

For me, however, I should be clear, that the atmosphere in our sittings was one of acute civility. It was not unlike a psychiatrist’s couch, but with wine. I treasured those evenings. On those Thursdays out of winter into summer and into another autumn, we talked of many things. Our mutual dislike of certain contemporaries from Oxford, Brexit, and the Tom Hiddleston–Taylor Swift romance all surfaced. We spoke of money and of David’s expansive tutoring empire, which he used to sustain himself. Such is common enough pursuit in London, the exchange of a humanities degree to teenagers for an hourly rate, but as we sat it was clear that David had refined the practice. In its conventional iteration, London tutoring involves solving simultaneous equations for the offspring of the well-heeled. David had refined that mission so that any actual academic context delivered was either secondary or absent entirely; the real paid-for experience was simply spending an hour with David.

When we met, David was often fresh from these pedagogical activities. They invariably took place in West London, where the rich have lived since the prevailing westerly wind meant they could not smell the city’s poor. David would come from teaching chess to the progeny of a mogul. Or he would return from guiding the eighteen-year-old son of an expatriate billionaire around the National Gallery for a sixty-minute course on the comportment of contemporary masculinity lightly spiced with the Western visual tradition. I often wondered what exactly these children’s parents thought they were buying, but they seemed happy enough to pay. (It should be said, too, that David never spoke ill of his charges or their families, or the operation he was working for. Any judgement was mine alone). Of course, underpinning these shenanigans was a darker truth: contemporary London’s excruciating expense and its difficulty as a venue for creative art. Day jobs are necessary, but David tutored in the eighteenth-century manner. I once ghost wrote a piece for a woman’s glossy magazine.

Mostly, we spoke about our work. Sympathetically put, throughout the months that I sat for him, David and I were, in our respective creative fields, attempting new things. David was jumping from illustration to painting in oils, which he had not attempted since high school, an activity in which he had no formal university-level training (David never went to art school). I, meanwhile, was under contract for book-length nonfiction, a significant gearshift from magazine journalism and earlier stillborn attempts at fiction. Put more critically, neither of us really had a clue what we were doing: David watched YouTube tutorials on how to stretch canvases and discovered, by trial and error, that you can’t keep turpentine in a plastic cup (it dissolves its way through). I attempted to marshal endless interviews into some kind of coherent manuscript while in parallel knocking out back-to-back magazine features to keep the wolf from the door. We were both beginners, but we were learning, and it was good to talk.

Then we fell out. The proximate cause was a Facebook post that I made, but there was much more behind it. I do not recall the exact words and, for reasons that shall become clear, I cannot consult the original document, but I know that the post conflated two of David’s artistic identities. Names have always been a slippery thing with him. I know him as David, as do most of our university contemporaries, though his legal first name is Moussa, the Arabic variant of Moses. When his mother was giving birth his father said, His name will be Moussa, which is his grandfather’s name. His mother eventually relented. She has, however, never called him Moussa in his life. Ironically, his father, and the rest of his Lebanese family, also call him David. The change to Moussa started during his legal career. “When I was drawing whilst I was a lawyer I used Moussa to distinguish myself from the law,” he said.

“There has been a changeover now,” he added. “Now, if someone says, What’s your name? I’ll say my name’s Moussa or David, you can call me whichever. Now it literally is whichever they prefer.”

Afer David quit his law job he searched for a new moniker, a nom de plume, under which to produce his illustration work. He considered MDS, his initials, a proposal memorably given the kibosh when an editor said MDS sounded like a party drug. He eventually settled on an alternative, which for reasons that shall become clear, I will not give here. When the portrait project began, he explained he intended to have a separate pen name for what he hoped would eventually be a commercial portraiture practice. This third handle would be his full, legal name: Moussa David Saleh.

As far as I recall the vexed Facebook post alluded to the fact that I was sitting for a portrait by David, while mentioning his illustration work and the handle he used for that. I wrote it during one of David’s periodic bouts as a social-media refusenik; he was not on Facebook, I could not tag him, and he only saw the post later on a friend’s account. I also recall specifically, and at the time frustratingly, that I had felt frustrated, given the enormous contretemps that followed, because the post was highly complementary, an attempt to be kind. I increasingly believe that the pursuit of any artistic endeavour involves, beyond any question of talent or inspiration, the negotiation of two complex emotions: rejection, without the proper handling of which you cannot make progress, and envy, which must be parsed or strained into a positive force—X did a great piece of work, I would like to do something of similar scale or ambition—and away from the easy trap of negativity—Y did a great piece of work, and now I would like them to die. There is a conscious choice to be made there and Facebook helps with it. The act of simply, mechanically indeed, sharing the successes of friends on the platform hews envy to the better sort. That said, I also conceived the post with limited thought.

The reaction was pyrotechnic. Once he had got wind of the post, the demands came immediately: take it down. More messages followed, thick and fast.

Stubbornness is a reciprocal emotion; it can produce exactly the same response in reverse, and here it did so. In part, this was some kind of “inhaled at Columbia Journalism School” creed, a determination to stand by my published words, even in a trivial form. After all, in the modern age, demands for retraction threaten to sweep away all argument.

I also felt there was a misconception on his behalf about the nature of pseudonymity—the alias—in art. In an indication of my own considerable levels of stubbornness, my objections became a 983-word email (subject matter: Hi). “Firstly, regarding a split identity for different kinds of work,” I wrote, “this is a well-accepted artist stance and one with a long, and noble lineage, from Graham Greene drawing a separation between his literary novels and ‘entertainments’ to Toyota producing the Lexus luxury brand as well as the Prius hybrid.” It was fine, I said, to present work under multiple titles. What you could not hope to do, in my view, was wholly police which ones the exterior world used.

David never replied to my email. He was abroad with his girlfriend. I heard later that their holiday was essentially ruined by the issue of the Facebook post.

In Dalston, the painting lay unfinished. In the end, I proposed crisis talks. Before we met at the French House, I had chosen to fold. It was not worth it. I did not want to lose a friendship. I deleted the Facebook post.

Of course, in the end, as relationships do after they’ve been through the fire, our friendship was strengthened. We resumed our sittings. We reached my mouth, and conversation ceased. When my face was done, painted from life, the process changed. David completed my jacket from photographs, explaining afterward that he would forbid future sitters from wearing waxed cloth, whose reflective properties, like oil on water, are hard to manage in paint. He added the backdrop, pale blue, in my absence. I still saw David socially, but our Thursday sessions stopped, and I missed them. When, last summer, I found myself in a position and great and profound personal distress, it was David I sought out. We sat in another bar in Soho and he put a hand on my arm and I was glad.

Last October, almost a year after I had finished sitting for him, I went one Sunday London evening to the Garrick Theatre on Charing Cross Road for the opening of his exhibition. I went in costume, in my Belstaff and the white shirt striped blue that I had worn for the sittings. There were drinks and gathered acquaintances from David’s various lives. In naming terms, the Moussa contingent seemed perhaps a quarter as strong as the Davidians. There were some older figures who looked like family and deputations from his tutoring empire; I spoke to an endearing couple who had enlisted David for the instruction of their teenage daughters. Most of all, though, there were the canvases, hung about the room. There were some I had seen previously in the studio in varied states of completion—his mother, whom he had gone north to paint in a single blitz of energy, and the problematic painting of Mark, now redeemed. There were others I had never seen before, notably a baby, titled “Portrait of an Extremely Young Man.” And there I was, I was there in oils. I asked a friend to take a photograph of David and I standing with our painting. He got drunk and slicked with emotion, and my primary feeling was pride.

We sit, he and I, at a time of life when many are abandoning their artistic impulses, driven away from them by the accrual of domestic and other responsibilities. Shortly before his launch, I had attended engagement drinks where a friend explained his partner was abandoning acting to go to law school. The couple was gay, but one could still hear the echo of Cyril Connolly’s phrase, “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” At the Garrick, David had done the inverse. He had left law, completed his portraits, and the only baby was a painted one.


Simon Akam is a British writer. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, GQ, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Outside. His first book, The Changing of the Guard, will be published by William Heinemann later this year.