tue 04/08/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: Artist Maggi Hambling | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Artist Maggi Hambling

theartsdesk Q&A: Artist Maggi Hambling

The flamboyant artist talks to theartsdesk about sex, death and the sea.

Hambling is, amongst other things, an acclaimed portrait painter. Her subjects include Max Wall and Stephen Fry, and she won the Jerwood Painting Prize alongside Patrick Caulfield in 1995. She was the first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery and acquired something of a cult following when she appeared with George Melly in Channel 4's Gallery, ostensibly a quiz show about art which was described by Peter Ackroyd, “as the only interesting situation comedy on television at present". Melly subsequently gave Hambling the moniker Maggi "Coffin" Hambling due to her predilection for painting the deceased.

With some justification she refers to herself as a maverick and her sculptures such as Conversation with Oscar Wilde and Scallop, a tribute to Benjamin Britten, have divided the critics and public alike – one indignant response to Scallop was, “It doesn’t look anything like Benjamin Britten!” Since 2002, she has taken her inspiration from the North Sea.

HILARY WHITNEY: When did your obsession with the sea begin?

MAGGI HAMBLING: As a child I was taken to the sea - I always wanted to go to Clacton because of the funfair, but my mother was pretty snobbish so we went to Frinton – and although it took years for it to become my subject, I remember very distinctly walking into the sea and talking to it as if it was my friend.

Years and years later, on the morning of 30 November 2002, during the pause between making the maquette – or the model – for Scallop (pictured below) and it actually being made, I drove to the sea and there was this very extraordinary, dramatic storm. Eventually I came back to the studio to continue working on a little 12" x 10" portrait I was doing from memory of a London beggar. But after a while I looked out of my window across the water meadows and I thought, “What the fuck am I doing, painting this London beggar when actually, what’s inside me is the memory of the storm that morning and the sea?” So I painted my memory of the sea that morning on top of the portrait of the beggar and that’s how it all began. I think everything comes from childhood, only then I used to talk to the sea – now I listen to it.


So what was your childhood like?

Well, now I live in east Suffolk but I was brought up in Hadleigh, which is south Suffolk, where there are more houses and so forth – it’s sort of a more polite landscape. But my father was born in Snape so when I came here, it felt like coming home.

My sister Ann and brother Roger are 11 and nine years older than me respectively, so I was quite a surprise, if not a miracle, since it transpires that by the time I was born my father was probably more interested in men than women and spent most of his time, when he wasn’t working at the bank, hidden behind the Daily Telegraph. I was a very plump baby with blonde curls and blue eyes and I was always laughing, which was how people liked babies in those days. In fact, unbeknownst to my mother, Ann used to doll me up and take me to baby shows; she used to make five bob a time because I always won.

At Hadleigh Hall School I was always the Virgin Mary in the nativity play because I had the longest hair and loudest voice - although I was only allowed in the school choir on the condition that I didn’t sing. I was quite tough. I was the gang leader and a kind of jester, because I learnt very early on that the way to people’s hearts was to make them laugh, which I’ve never been disproved of. My first encounter with Oscar Wilde, that magical voice from another place, was when he was read to us at school. I also remember that when Uncle Tom’s Cabin was read to us, everyone else made exotic patterns by colouring in the squares in their arithmetic books, but I preferred to draw all the slaves being beaten.

So you were an artistic child?

Not really. Not until I went to my next school, Amberfield, which I called the dunces school because it’s where people went if they’d failed to get into Ipswich High School, which is where Ann went. However my mother said, with hindsight of course, that it was fate that I ended up at Amberfield because there was an art teacher there who was a practising artist – and a very good artist, too. We knew her as Mrs Campbell but she painted under the name of Yvonne Drewry. I remember her approaching me rather nervously when I was about 13 and asking me if I was colour-blind because I always drew, whereas everybody else always painted, so I painted a picture to show her that I wasn’t.

What’s interesting about that is that one of my teachers at Ipswich Art School said that drawing is the male half of you and colour is the female part of you. So initially at art school, girls always seemed to be more advanced than the boys because they were naturally painting with a sense of colour and boys would be much better at drawing - but whilst the boys would catch up using paint, very few girls did so on the drawing side. I do think there’s some truth to that, at least that’s what I experienced when I used to teach at art schools. But as Picasso said, "We’re all partly male and partly female, and to make a work of art you have to bring the whole thing together."

But I wasn’t particularly interested in art – I didn’t spend hours scribbling away at home – until my art exam when I was 14. I was deeply in love with the biology mistress who was invigilating the exam so I did nothing but flick paint about and draw attention to myself until I looked at the clock and suddenly realised I had to hand in a painting in 10 minutes. So I quickly painted something and to my surprise, when the results came, I was top in art. So I thought, “This is a very odd business,” and I started to get interested in it.

Yvonne Drewry encouraged me to keep a sketch book and I would draw people on buses and in cafes. It’s an old-fashioned thing to do, but it has its uses. I also started to take Studio [magazine] – until then I’d always taken the Eagle, I was very proud of being the only girl member of the Eagle Club – and sent off for a couple of high-quality reproductions of a Picasso circus picture and a Vlaminck snow-scene for my bedroom wall.

I remember staying up until two o’clock one morning, trying to paint the night sky out of my bedroom window, but when I took my paintings into school the next day, the other girls laughed. I was just about to cry when Yvonne Drewry took me to one side and said, “Don’t take any notice. It has to be water off a duck’s back.” And it has been ever since.

Once I got going with art, I tried to paint the truth, or draw the truth, as I saw it. This was important to me because there was a lot of pretence in my childhood. My mother tried very hard to make our family life resemble something out of a Noël Coward comedy, with laughter and cocktails and charades and so forth, but I was always aware that she was trying to gloss over various undercurrents.

There were also a couple of childhood incidents that made me feel very strongly about telling the truth. We were on holiday in Gorleston when I was given a very beautiful red-and-green marbled beach ball which, according to the label, was completely indestructible - but when I stuck a pin in it, it collapsed. I insisted we took it back to the shop because it was a downright lie, it wasn’t indestructible at all. The second occasion was when my brother-in-law took me to Harrods’ pet department. I was told they could get you any kind of animal you wanted, so I said I’d like a baby elephant but of course, they couldn’t get me that. So I had a thing about truth, right from the start.

When I’m painting now, or making a sculpture, I don’t have the radio on or anything – you have to listen to what’s inside yourself

Anyway, art had got me and I’d decided I wanted to be an artist but my parents wanted some sort of reassurance that I was any good, so when I was 15 I took my first two oil landscapes to show Lett [Haines] and Cedric [Morris] at Benton End [The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing] where Lucien Freud had studied painting. They were very encouraging and as I left I remember Lett saying, “I suppose you’re still at school. You’d better come back in the holidays and do some painting.” I was there on the very first day of the summer holidays but I was too shy to go in so I painted the ditch at the end of the drive. But when I heard someone ringing the bell to announce elevenses, I plucked up the courage to go in.

I used to work with Lett, cooking in the kitchen, and he told me, "If you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to make your work your best friend, whatever you’re feeling." I was very privileged to be there, in a place where art was the priority. It was like a different world – they ate couscous, for heaven’s sake!

But you were still at school?

When I first went to Benton End, yes, but then I left half way through my A levels thus depriving my headmistress the pleasure of asking my parents to take me away. I went to Ipswich School of Art for a couple of years and then Camberwell [School of Art].

Why, at Camberwell, did you ask Euan Uglow not to teach you?

Well, I’d seen his work, that sub-Coldstream kind of painting of which my friend David Brown [the curator] said, “That school of English painting that is so afraid of nature it dare only look at it with its eyes half-closed.” You know - paintings that look as if they should get the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for Diligence, which is the complete opposite of what I’m all about. But a lot of people did want to paint like Euan Uglow so I don’t suppose he minded at all. He had plenty of followers.

There was a period in the Seventies when you stopped painting. What happened?

After Camberwell I went to the Slade as a post-graduate but I stopped painting after the first term because everyone was making these big abstract paintings and I didn’t think they had anything to do with the man on the street. It was a political decision. So I worked with these two boys, Geoff McEwan and Harry Biggin, on this audiovisual environment called A Space of Five Times. It was very ahead of it’s time, I mean, they hadn’t even heard of a tape recorder at the Slade but it was a very civilised place and they tried to get us all the cameras and equipment we needed. That took up the rest of my time at the Slade and then I went off and did some street art, Under Blue Skies, for which I was selected for the John Player – it wouldn’t happen now – Biennale of Conceptual Art.

Your conceptual work  was quite ahead of its time, wasn’t it?  

Oh yes, I had a light bulb [reference to Martin Creed’s Turner Prize-winning installation The Lights Going On and Off] going off in 1971. I think there’s room for everyone but I do get quite bored when people take one tiny element of Duchamp or one tiny element of Warhol, both of whom I think of great artists, and blow it up until there’s nothing there. And a lot of conceptual art, once it’s been described, it’s so easy to imagine that quite often I don’t see any need to actually look at it. But that shark livened things up a bit and so did that bed and I’m all for that.

So why did you go back to painting?

I got fed up with being a kind of impresario. I had lots of ideas but Geoff and Harry were far better at the technical side of things and I was tired of having to find someone who knew about lights and sound and all that stuff. It was such a relief when I returned to painting because I didn’t need anyone else. When I’m painting now, or making a sculpture, I don’t have the radio on or anything – you have to listen to what’s inside yourself. It’s very much about being on your own.

Maggi Hambling discusses painting (youtube):

Anyway, I’d gone full circle – from wanting to get through to the man on the street, I tried to paint him. I’d go to the pub and have half a pint of bitter and if I was very moved by somebody I would look at them, study them, turn my head away and ask myself if I’d got that eyebrow or that nostril or that ear. But I didn’t draw them, I’d go home and paint them, so I trained the visual memory, which was important.

At the third sitting I had the most terrible hangover, I could hardly open my eyes

When you started to get commissions, did you worry that you might feel compromised in some way?

Well, the first person who commissioned me is not someone I would have chosen to paint.

Who was it?

Ooh, I couldn’t say. But you know, Mozart wrote music for music boxes and I’m not sure that’s something he particularly wanted to do either, so I thought I’d give it a go. The first two sittings were a couple of drawings which didn’t look very much like that person and then at the third sitting I had the most terrible hangover, I could hardly open my eyes. I tried to telephone to say, “Don’t come,” but it was too late, he was already at the door so in a very bravura way, I said, “Very well, today we will do a colour study.” I got a small piece of hardboard that I’d prepared, about 14 inches by 14 inches, and I did this colour study in about an hour. It was actually pretty good - everything worked and it was very alive - so I put it on one side and said, “That’s enough for today, we’ll start the painting next time.” But the painting on the canvas was never as good as that colour study so I learnt never to make a colour study after making drawings, but to go straight onto the canvas.

It was also quite odd because neither of us had discussed or thought about a price, so my sitter would arrive with a sort of handful of fivers and, in a rather embarrassed way, give them to me and I, in a rather embarrassed way, would shove them in my pocket and I realised that the longer the painting went on the more money I was going to get for it! But that was just the first one. I learnt a lot and now I have to have some kind of rapport with the person otherwise I don’t take it on.

In 1980 you became the first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery.

Yes, four artists were considered – I don’t know who the other ones were - I just remember that during the course of my interview Michael Levey, who was the Director of the National Gallery, asked me whether I thought I could work in the studio they’d provided, to which I replied, “Well, it will be quite unusual to work entirely by artificial light.” It hadn’t occurred to anyone that an artist might have liked a bit of God’s light coming in. They were also very afraid of my setting fire to the National Gallery with a cigarette so they covered this extraordinary converted children’s sandwich room with tin foil - the ceiling, the walls and the floor – in case I started a fire. I felt like an oven-ready meal.  But I learnt a lot about shadows because I made a series of portraits of Archie Macdonald, the warder, and I had to use spotlights, which threw the most extraordinary shadows on this tin foil.

There were these posters of me all over the Gallery which said, 'Come and meet a real artist, four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon

The scheme was originally just for three months but it was very successful so I stayed for three more. I was there six days a week from half-past seven in the morning so I had all that time with the pictures before the public came in and I’d stay in the evening if I felt like it. I made a lot of studies from pictures, which was very useful.

And then of course, the public were invited to meet me. There were these posters of me all over the Gallery which said, “Come and meet a real artist, four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon.”

So how did you feel at five to four?

I put a bit of whisky into the coffee mug on my painting trolley, that’s what I did. And then the public would arrive and I took them, rather like the Pied Piper, to about half a dozen pictures that I felt I could say a bit about because I liked them. Then they would come back to the studio with all my work round the walls and ask me questions. Of course, there was a great mixture of people there, I mean everyone from tramps sheltering from the rain and Japanese people who didn’t understand English to the cognoscenti of the art world.  There was one infernal woman who came every week and asked me if I saw auras around people. Most extraordinary.

Then I was asked to stay for another six months but I thought I’d been there long enough because I don’t think it’s good for an artist to become part of an institution.

Tell me about Gallery, which you made with George Melly for Channel 4 in 1984.

Well, that’s when I first became friends with George although I had met him before at a garden party in Hampstead Square. We’d both had rather a lot to drink and were lying on the grass at some distance from each other. Somebody said they thought that we ought to meet so we sort of squirmed - you know, how worms move - towards each other. Apparently, I instantly went into the attack because he’d written a piece for The Times about me being the first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery and he’d got a few things wrong.

Then we were asked to do Gallery together, which was a quiz programme about art. I think they asked me because I’d been at the National Gallery and they thought I would know everything, which was very far from the truth. We made 10 programmes in a week and there was always vodka in my glass otherwise I would never have been able to say anything although one had to be careful because if I’d had too much vodka before the programme, I wouldn’t have been able to say anything either.

At first we had students on the teams but of course they’d never encountered anything like a hospitality room so they got completely sloshed and couldn’t say anything. But it was quite fun. There was a lot of drinking. We’d get back at night and carry on drinking at the bar of the Holiday Inn in Bristol and Dan Farson, whose idea Gallery was, would leave the bar at about two am and go off to the docks. He quite often returned in such a state that he would not be admitted back into the hotel.

It’s amazing to think they used to have programmes like that on television - John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and The Shock on the New. That just wouldn’t happen now.

I know, but that Gallery thing became cult viewing. Everybody remembers when I wore a moustache, which was purely my way of injecting a bit of anarchy because if I’d said anything at all racy it was cut. But I reckoned that as I was a team captain they couldn’t cut me out completely, hence the moustache.

Peter Ackroyd was the television critic of The Times and he wrote a very funny review and said how my cigarettes created “the air of a fish and chip shop". He also thought I was getting sandwiches out of a packet until he realised I was rolling my own. But it was great fun and George and I became very close friends so that was good too.

It was Melly who christened you Maggi "Coffin" Hambling on account of all the dead people you have painted.

Well, this thing about painting people after they’re dead - if you loved someone very much, they’re still alive inside you. My mother was the first person I drew in her coffin and then made a painting out of it but the first death painting I made from memory was of Frances Rose, the old lady who lived next door in Battersea. I’d been with her in hospital when she’d died. It was very peaceful - she smiled at me, although I have no idea at what moment she actually died - but I couldn’t get it out of my head so my neighbour suggested that I make a painting out if it.

Of course, it helps if you’ve drawn them when they were alive. I’ve made many drawings of my mother, but only one painting of her since she died, but lots [of paintings] of my father. In a way, I suppose I feel that while I’m painting them, they’re not really dead. I loved George a lot and I made a whole series of paintings after he died but it wasn’t until all those paintings left the studio to go to the Walker Gallery that I finally accepted he was dead. I suppose working on the paintings, trying to make them as alive as I could, was a way of denying death. But you know, I dream about all these people, they’re still knocking around. I think they look after you in a way, the dead.

You’re extremely prolific.

Work is the most important thing of all, you have to keep going in the hope that you’ll get better. I remember one afternoon when I was at Camberwell, everyone had stopped for tea, but I carried on working and another student, said, “Come on, it’s tea-time, what are you still doing that for?” and I replied that as far as I was concerned, art was more real than life.

Actually, you know, there are people, like Henrietta [Moraes, Hambling’s muse who died in 1999] who live a lot and are sort of artists of living but this is my life. So in a way, I stand back from life because what happens in these studios is my life and it’s inordinately disciplined. I get up very early before anyone is about and drive to the sea.  I didn’t used to draw, but now I do, although I don’t bother looking at the drawings later, they’re just to get into the rhythm of the thing. Then I come back to my studio and try to paint the moment of the wave crashing. Aeschylus described waves as they break as “unnumberable laughterings” which I think is beautiful.

It is, of course, very sexy.  The wave sort of approaches you slowly – or fast – across the sea, it becomes solid at its crest and then crashes and dissolves – it’s pretty orgasmic. And of course, as I approach early middle-age, I identify with the shingle on the beach, the land that’s being eroded, so it’s also a bit like a conversation with death every morning.  But it can be quite sexy, death.


Photograph © Douglas Atfield

When I paint the waves I want them to seem as if they are crashing in front of you, right now. That’s the magic of oil paint over any bloody photograph because a photograph is just a single moment, immediately consigned to history, whereas an oil painting is the result of many hours' work, culminating in a single moment. If you look at a late Titian or a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh, it’s as if you’re there at the act of making the painting and that’s what’s so exciting about paint to me. It’s something photography can never touch, no matter how moving the subject.

Although they are ostensibly very different, I can see a lot of similarities in the sea paintings with your other work, such as Laughing Mouth and Good Friday 2004.

What? You see Jesus in the sea? But yes, I think a lot of things have come together in these paintings – they’re full of mouths and animals and all sorts of things that people tell me about which I haven’t noticed - and I did paint a Christ of the waves although I only do him on Good Friday. It’s a kind of bad habit which comes from childhood memories of Good Friday being such a miserable day. My mother was quite churchy and it was instilled in me that you couldn’t have any fun so I find it very difficult to think of anything else on Good Friday but Christ on the cross.

And of course, it is an extraordinary image combination of life and death at the same moment. I think great art inhabits the place that is both life and death and that’s rather the point of it.

But in a way, Henrietta Eating a Meringue [sculpture of Moraes] was the beginning of the sea paintings and sculptures because of this whole thing of the sea being like a great mouth eating up the coast.

And much as some people don’t like her, she’s become a sort of holy place – people have made love underneath her

Scallop started life before your obsession with the sea, so how did that come about?

A friend of mine heard that there was going to be a statue of Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh and that I’d been commissioned to do it, and I said, “Well, that’s the first I’ve ever heard of it,” and then I began to think it and decided I’d like to make something. So I wasn’t asked to make it and, as you know, there are many people who rather I hadn’t done it.

Its subtitle is "Conversation with the Sea" and that’s why it’s very important that she stands alone on the beach, facing the sea. A shell has so many reference points - the Cradle of Venus, it’s a symbol of pilgrimage and there’s the obvious childhood pleasure of holding a shell to your ear.

I can remember as a child seeing fireworks on the beach at Aldeburgh for the Coronation, those great explosions against the night sky, and I wanted that sort of explosion in Scallop, to reflect Britten’s music, his extraordinary exposition of sounds. So you see this strange silhouette from the road and then if you’re interested enough to go and look at this surreal great shell, you’ll see there’s an explosion inside where the sea is.

And much as some people don’t like her, she’s become a sort of holy place – people have made love underneath her, children climb all over the top of her and this morning people had left flowers there.

Your studio is full of sea sculptures and reliefs for your forthcoming exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. You have said that you started to make sculptures because you felt your subjects were trying to escape from the paintings.

Yes, that’s how the sculpture started - I think it was the end of 1992. The first sculptures were in clay and I’d moved into wax and bronze by the end of 1993. The reliefs are a completely new departure for me and I’m very excited by them although I can’t remember exactly why I started doing them. I think I just wanted to physically draw the sea with my hands. You have to work very fast because you mix the plaster up and get it just right and then you only have two or three minutes before it begins to get hard. Obviously you can work on it again with more plaster but essentially it’s a fast medium, like drawing.

Your work has been incredibly diverse.

Yes. Well. A lot of people don’t like that, particularly in this country – they like to put you in a pigeon-hole, you know, "isms" - surrealism, neo-classicism, post-modernism. I’m not an ism, more of a maverick, or so I’m told, because life dictates what I do. It’s like, when somebody dies, I’m moved to do something about it.  And then it was the sea. I didn’t ask for the sea to come and get me – but it did.

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