Billy Rayner: Diarist and World Traveler

A view into a life fully lived
Billy Rayner divides his time between an East Side brownstone and a house in East Hampton Village. Mark Segal

    Billy Rayner hasn’t been to China. Or Japan. But he’s been practically everywhere else during the past 50 years and kept diaries filled with watercolors, photographs, observations, historical information, and memorabilia. “Notes and Sketches: Travel Journals of William P. Rayner,” a two-volume set, has just been published by Glitterati Incorporated, allowing readers a view into a life fully lived.

    Born in Washington, D.C., Mr. Rayner was educated at the Taft School in Connecticut and the University of Virginia before moving to New York City to work for Condé Nast as an editorial business manager and writer.

    “I started traveling extensively when I was around 30 years old,” he said, “both for Condé Nast and on my own account.” His first big trip was to Egypt, where he went to see Abu Simbel before the construction of the Aswan Dam removed it to higher ground. “You didn’t fly in then,” he recalled. “You took a two-hour hydrofoil there and spent the day.” Abu Simbel, according to “Notes and Sketches,” was more dramatic in its original location on the banks of the Nile than it is today: “Now it rests on an artificial hill, making it look more like a movie set.”

    Early on, Mr. Rayner, a longtime East Hampton homeowner, started painting. “My mother and aunt both painted, and I used to paint with them. I’ve painted all my life, one way or another. When I was working for Condé Nast I could only paint on the weekends.” He still paints every day in the studio of his Manhattan brownstone.

    He began keeping travel diaries in the 1960s, inspired in part by the aunt, also a diarist. “Her diaries were strictly painting. At first, mine were watercolor-driven; then I began to make notes — I was a writer, after all — and then started to paste things in,” wine labels and other memorabilia. Of the pyramids, he writes that “the one thing that all can agree upon is that Giza is hot, so a cold bottle of Cru des Ptolémées for lunch is a welcome relief.” He has the label to prove it.

    Publishing the journals was never a consideration. In fact, nobody, not even friends, read them. “Maybe my wives read bits and pieces,” the author admitted, “but nobody else. Diaries are things you don’t pass around.” But then came Marta Hallett, the founder of Glitterati Press, a publisher of distinctive illustrated books, ancillary gift products, and electronic media, who looked through Mr. Rayner’s collection and said she had an idea of how to publish the disparate materials.

    “She came back with what I thought was a very good idea,” he said.

    Each location is brought to life by a combination of watercolors, photographs, text both handwritten and typeset, local currency, postage stamps, even a formal invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Billy Rayner to dine in Calcutta with the governor of West Bengal, who was the great-grandson of Mahatma Ghandi. “Calcutta is on the Hooghly river, spanned by a bridge under which refugees from Bangladesh sleep, while nearby a local country club caters to the ‘staying-on’ crowd who take their tea and Pimms cup there. Then there is a marvelous museum with the work of Tilly Kettle, an 18th-century English portrait painter who worked in India, while on streets nearby are once grand houses crumbling into decay.”

    While he describes moments of comfort and relaxation, for the most part Mr. Rayner strays far from the tourist-beaten path. He often finds himself in perilous situations. Of crossing a deep gorge on a narrow, swinging, rope bridge to reach a monastery in Phuktal, India, he writes, “It is necessary to blindfold the horses and attach bells so they can neither see nor hear the water rushing below.” Trekking in the Himalayas on narrow, treacherous footpaths and driving on rutted, serpentine roads flanked by sheer cliffs make for other hair-raising tales.

    Wherever he goes, Mr. Rayner travels with a sack of brushes, paints, and “an artist’s black book you can buy at any art store. The paper isn’t great, but it’s very utilitarian, and I can get down what I want to.” He has always admired traveling artists — Hercules Brabazon, Edward Lear, Eugène Delacroix — as well as such writers as Gertrude Bell, Richard Burton, and Robert Byron, all of whom “have inspired me to want to see things far from home.”

    He explains in the introduction to the book, “I sketch rather than take photographs to remember places and moments, because I love the process. I also like to sit in front of a scene for a while to take in the surroundings and the mood so as to give the subject some texture.” Asked if there were places where he felt intrusive or endangered, he shook his head. “A painter is no threat to anybody.” Onlookers often surround him as he works, and he has been warned countless times about pickpockets, but “never in 40 years have I ever lost so much as a pencil.”

    Volume I of the book is devoted to North Africa and the Middle East, including Turkey. Many places in the region are now out of bounds, since he was there, Mr. Rayner said, including Libya, Egypt, and Syria. “We were in Syria just before the war. There were hardly any tourists, but it was perfectly calm. We would go out to dinner with friends — some place that couldn’t be bugged — and talk politics. They said, ‘We don’t like Assad, but at least we know the devil. We don’t know what the next devil will be.’ ”

    Aleppo, he said, having been conquered by the Greeks, Romans, Mamelukes, Byzantines, Ottomans, and French, was an extraordinary mélange of architectural styles. “I’m afraid it’s all gone,” he said ruefully. “But it’s not only wars that change places. Tourism does, too. Though if you had to choose between the two, you’d take tourism.”

    Years ago there were very few tourists in Turkey, he mused, but it has lately become a popular destination, especially Istanbul and the Mediterranean coast. However, the interior of the country, where he has traveled extensively, hasn’t changed, he said, and tourists are a rarity there. During one visit he spent seven days driving through eastern Turkey over unpaved roads, staying in primitive lodgings. “Places like Lake Van, Erzurum, the area near the Russian border, probably haven’t changed much in 1,000 years,” he said.

    What emerges vividly from Mr. Rayner’s diaries is a fascination with far-flung, often exotic, locales, and a wide-ranging knowledge of people, history, and culture. It’s safe to assume it won’t be long before he crosses Japan and China off his to-visit list.

    Billy Rayner will be at BookHampton in East Hampton on Saturday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. to sign books and talk about his peregrinations.

A watercolor of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul from Mr. Rayner’s book Glitterati Incorporated