Bruce Chatwin

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Bruce Chatwin
Born (1940-05-13)13 May 1940
near Sheffield, England
Died 18 January 1989(1989-01-18) (aged 48)
Nice, France
Occupation Novelist, travel writer, art and antiquities advisor
Nationality British (English)
Period 1977–89
Genre History, travel, fiction
Subject Patagonia, slave trade, nomads, Britain, Europe, Australia, Afghanistan
Spouse Elizabeth Chanler

Charles Bruce Chatwin (13 May 1940 – 18 January 1989) was an English writer whose best known works are In Patagonia (1977) and The Songlines (1987).[1] Although he was often referred to as a travel writer, a term he eschewed,[2] Chatwin was also a novelist and a journalist who interviewed figures such as Indira Gandhi and André Malraux. He won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel On the Black Hill (1982)[3] and his novel Utz (1988) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.[4]

Married and bisexual, he was one of the first prominent men in Britain known to have contracted HIV and died of AIDS, although he hid the facts of his illness. Chatwin gave various explanations for his ill health, including malaria and a fungal infection. Following his death he was criticized for not publicly disclosing his diagnosis.

Early life[edit]

Bruce Chatwin was born on 13 May 1940 in the Shearwood Road Nursing Home in Sheffield, England to Margharita (née Turnell) and Charles Chatwin. Margharita grew up in Sheffield and worked for the local Conservative party prior to her marriage. Charles was a lawyer from Birmingham who joined the Royal Naval Reserve following the outbreak of World War II.

Charles and Margharita had been living at Barnt Green, Worcestershire but Margharita moved to her parents' house in Dronfield, near Sheffield shortly before Chatwin's birth. Mother and son remained there for only a few weeks. Margharita was worried about Nazi bombs, and she sought a safer place to stay. Thus would begin a period of regular movement for Margharita and Bruce as they went to stay with various relatives during the war. They would remain in one place until either Margharita decided to move out of concern for their safety or because of friction among family members.[5] Later in life Bruce recalled of the war, "I lived in NAAFI canteens and was passed around like a tea urn."[6]

After the war, Chatwin lived with his parents and younger brother Hugh (born in 1944) in West Heath in Birmingham where his father had a law practice. He was educated at Old Hall School in Shropshire and Marlborough College, in Wiltshire.[7] While at Marlborough College, Chatwin attained A-levels in Latin, Greek, and Ancient History.[8]

Chatwin had hoped to read Classics at Merton College, Oxford, but his plans were thwarted by the end of National Service in the United Kingdom. As a result, there was more competition for university seats, and Chatwin was forced to consider other options. His parents discouraged the ideas he offered—an acting career or work in the Colonial Service in Kenya. Instead Chatwin's father asked one of his clients for a letter of introduction to the auction house Sotheby's. An interview was arranged, and Chatwin secured a job there.[9]

Art and archaeology[edit]

In 1958, Chatwin moved to London to begin work as a porter in the Works of Art department at Sotheby's.[10] Chatwin was ill-suited for this job which involved dusting objects that had been kept in storage.[11] Sotheby's moved him to a junior cataloger position working in both the Antiquities and Impressionist Art departments. This position enabled him to develop his "eye" for art and he quickly became known for his ability to discern forgeries. In due time, he became Sotheby's expert on Antiquities and Impressionist art and would later run both departments. He later became a director of the company.[12]

In late 1964 he began to suffer from problems with his sight, which he attributed to the close analysis of artwork entailed by his job. He consulted eye specialist Patrick Trevor-Roper, who diagnosed a latent squint and recommended that Chatwin take a six-month break from his work at Sotheby's. Trevor-Roper had been involved in the design of an eye hospital in Addis Ababa, and suggested Chatwin visit east Africa. In February 1965, Chatwin left for Sudan.[13] On his return, Chatwin quickly became disenchanted with the art world, and turned his interest to archaeology. He resigned from his Sotheby's post in the early summer of 1966.[14]

Chatwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study Archaeology in October 1966.[15] Despite winning the Wardrop Prize for the best first year's work,[16] he found the rigour of academic archaeology tiresome. He spent only two years there and left without taking a degree.[17]

Literary career[edit]

The southern part of the Grwyne Fechan valley in the Black Mountains

Following his departure from Edinburgh, Chatwin decided to pursue a career as a writer, successfully pitching a book proposal on nomads to Tom Maschler, publisher at Jonathan Cape. Chatwin tentatively titled the book The Nomadic Alternative and sought to answer the question "Why do men wander rather than stand still?"[18]

In 1972, Chatwin was hired by The Sunday Times Magazine as an adviser on art and architecture.[19] However, he soon began writing articles for the magazine, which allowed him to develop his narrative skills. Chatwin travelled on many international assignments, writing on such subjects as Algerian migrant workers and the Great Wall of China, and interviewing such diverse people as André Malraux[20] in France, and the author Nadezhda Mandelstam[21] in the Soviet Union.

In 1972, Chatwin interviewed the 93-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray in her Paris salon, where he noticed a map of the area of South America called Patagonia, which she had painted.[22] "I've always wanted to go there," Bruce told her. "So have I," she replied, "go there for me." Two years later in November 1974, Chatwin flew out to Lima in Peru, and reached Patagonia a month later.[23] When he arrived, he left the newspaper with a telegram: "Have gone to Patagonia." He spent six months in the area, a trip that resulted in the book In Patagonia (1977). This work established his reputation as a travel writer. Later, however, residents in the region contradicted the account of events depicted in Chatwin's book. It was the first time in his career, but not the last, that conversations and characters which Chatwin presented as fact were later alleged to be fiction.

Later works included a novel based on the slave trade, The Viceroy of Ouidah, which he researched with extended stays in Benin, West Africa. For The Songlines (1987), a work combining fiction and non-fiction, Chatwin went to Australia. He studied the culture to express how the songs of the Aborigines are a cross between a creation myth, an atlas and an Aboriginal man's personal story. He also related the travelling expressed in The Songlines to his own travels and the long nomadic past of humans.

Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, his novel On the Black Hill (1982) was set closer to home, in the hill farms of the Welsh Borders. It focuses on the relationship between twin brothers, Lewis and Benjamin, who grow up isolated from the course of twentieth century history. Utz (1988), was a novel about the obsession that leads people to collect. Set in Prague, the novel details the life and death of Kaspar Utz, a man obsessed with his collection of Meissen porcelain. Chatwin was working on a number of new ideas for future novels at the time of his death in 1989, including a transcontinental epic, provisionally titled Lydia Livingstone.

Style and influence[edit]

Chatwin is admired for his spare, lapidary style and his innate story-telling abilities. He has been criticised for his fictionalised anecdotes of real people, places, and events. The people he wrote about sometimes recognised themselves and did not appreciate his distortions of their culture and behaviour. Chatwin was philosophical about what he saw as an unavoidable dilemma, arguing that his portrayals were not intended to be faithful representations. His biographer Nicholas Shakespeare argued, "He tells not a half truth, but a truth and a half."[24]

Personal life[edit]

Much to the surprise of many of his friends, Chatwin married Elizabeth Chanler (a descendant of John Jacob Astor)[25] on 26 August 1965. He had met Chanler at Sotheby's, where she worked as a secretary. Chatwin was bisexual throughout his married life, a circumstance his wife knew and accepted. They had no children. After fifteen years of marriage, she asked for a separation and sold their farmhouse at Ozleworth in Gloucestershire.[26] Toward the end of his life, they reconciled. According to Chatwin's biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, the Chatwins' marriage seems to have been celibate. He describes Chatwin as homosexual rather than bisexual, although his biography quotes several women with whom Chatwin had sexual affairs.[27]

Chatwin was known as a socialite in addition to being a recognised travel author. His circle of friends extended far and wide. He was renowned for accepting hospitality and patronage from a powerful set of friends and allies. Penelope Betjeman – wife of the poet laureate John Betjeman – showed him the border country of Wales. She helped in the gestation of the book that would become On the Black Hill.[28] Tom Maschler, the publisher, was also a patron to Chatwin during this time, lending him his house in the area as a writing retreat.[29] Later, Chatwin visited Patrick Leigh Fermor in his house near Kardamyli, in the Peloponnese of Greece.[30] Chatwin was a close friend of the writer Gregor von Rezzori and the art dealer and collector Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte, and spent long periods writing at their home in Tuscany, now the Santa Maddalena Foundation for Writers.[31] Numbered among his lovers was Jasper Conran.[32]

He extensively used moleskines (which he named),[33] a particular style of notebooks manufactured in France. When production stopped in 1986, he bought up the entire supply at his stationery store.[34]

German filmmaker Werner Herzog relates a story about meeting Chatwin in Australia while Herzog was working on his 1984 film, Where the Green Ants Dream. Finding out that Chatwin was in Australia researching a book (The Songlines), Herzog sought him out. Herzog states that Chatwin professed his admiration for him, and when they met was carrying one of Herzog's books, On Walking In Ice. The two hit it off immediately, united by a shared love of adventure and telling tall tales. Herzog states that he and Chatwin talked almost nonstop over two days, telling each other stories. He said that Chatwin "told about three times as many as me."[35] Herzog also claims that when Chatwin was near death, he gave Herzog his leather rucksack and said,"You're the one who has to wear it now, you're the one who's walking."

In 1987, Herzog made Cobra Verde, a film based on Chatwin's 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, depicting the life of Francisco Manoel da Silva, a fictional Brazilian slave trader working in West Africa. Locations for the film included Brazil, Colombia and Ghana.


Around 1980, Chatwin contracted HIV. He told different stories about how he contracted the virus, such as that he was gang-raped in Dahomey, and that he believed he caught the disease from Sam Wagstaff, the patron and lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.[36] Chatwin was one of the first high-profile people in Britain to have the disease. Although he hid the illness – passing off his symptoms as fungal infections or the effects of the bite of a Chinese bat, a typically exotic cover story – it was a poorly kept secret. He did not respond well to AZT, and suffered increasing bouts of psychosis. With his condition deteriorating rapidly, Chatwin and his wife went to live in the South of France at the house belonging to Shirley Conran, the mother of his one-time lover, Jasper Conran. There, during his final months, Chatwin was nursed by both his wife and Shirley Conran. He died in Nice in 1989 at the age of 48.

A memorial service was held in the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Sophia in West London. It happened to be the same day that a fatwa was announced on Salman Rushdie, a close friend of Chatwin's, who attended the service. Paul Theroux, a one-time friend who also attended the service, later commented on it and Chatwin in a piece for Granta.[37] The novelist Martin Amis described the memorial service in the essay "Salman Rushdie", included in his anthology Visiting Mrs Nabokov.

Chatwin's ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli in the Peloponnese. This was close to the home of one of his mentors, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.



  1. ^ Benfey, Christopher (10 February 2011). "The Embroider". The New Republic. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Ignatieff, Michael (Spring 1987). "An Interview with Bruce Chatwin". Granta 21: 21–37. 
  3. ^ "James Tait Black Prize Winners". University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  4. ^ "Bruce Chatwin". The Man Booker Prize. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  5. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 22.
  6. ^ Ignatieff, Michael (Spring 1987). "An Interview with Bruce Chatwin". Granta 21: 32. 
  7. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 65.
  8. ^ Shakespeare, Nicholas (1999). Bruce Chatwin. p. 88. 
  9. ^ Shakespeare, Nicholas (1999). Bruce Chatwin. New York: Viking. pp. 87–88. ISBN 0-385-49829-2. 
  10. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 86.
  11. ^ Shakespeare, Nicholas (1999). Bruce Chatwin. Viking. pp. 92–93. 
  12. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 176.
  13. ^ Shakespeare 1999, pp. 158–159.
  14. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 178.
  15. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 189.
  16. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 192.
  17. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 214.
  18. ^ Chatwin, Bruce (1996). Anatomy of Restlessness. New York: Viking. p. 75. ISBN 0-670-86859-0. 
  19. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 267.
  20. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 280.
  21. ^ Chatwin 1990, pp. 83–85
  22. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 286.
  23. ^ Shakespeare 1999, pp. 287–291.
  24. ^ Quoted by Blake Morrison "Books: The odd life of two warm rabbits ", The Independent on Sunday, 4 April 1999
  25. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 171
  26. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 373.
  27. ^ "Yarn spinner", The Guardian, 10 April 1999, retrieved 2008-08-20 
  28. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 377.
  29. ^ Shakespeare 1999, p. 387.
  30. ^ Shakespeare 1999, pp. 444–448.
  31. ^ [1], "Baroness Nourishes Writers, Mourns Old Europe: Interview"]
  32. ^ "Bruce Chatwin", The Knitting Circle, accessed 2006-12-28
  33. ^ "Chatwin's Story", Moleskine World,
  34. ^ Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, "Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters. "I'd like to order a hundred," I said to Madame....She removed her spectacles and, almost with an air of mourning, said, 'Le vrai moleskine n'est plus.'"
  35. ^ Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), DVD commentary track, 57:00
  36. ^ James Crump "Black White + Gray: A portrait of Sam Wagstaff + Robert Mapplethorpe"
  37. ^ Theroux's "admiring tribute" to Chatwin,



  • Paul Yule, In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2x60 mins), BBC, 1999 – Berwick Universal Pictures

External links[edit]