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Maggi Hambling

The uproarious English artist fixes her gaze on war, climate change, death — then picks up her paintbrush.

Interview by Cristina Ruiz
Photography by Alasdair McLellan
Issue nº 28, Autumn and Winter 2023

In the course of her career, Maggi Hambling’s famously unflinching eye has brought her close to death many times. She’s prone to sketching friends in their caskets, and one of her hotly debated public sculptures shows Oscar Wilde bursting from his coffin — smoking, of course. After a recent critical illness, Maggi’s sharpened sense of mortality has produced a flurry of must-see paintings that bristle with life and loss. But at 77, she remains the same spirited tearaway who scandalised lesbian London with her suggestive dance moves.

A yellow-breasted blue tit is darting round Maggi Hambling’s luminous studio in Suffolk, unable to find its way out. “Blasted bird,” Maggi says as we try to encourage it away from the glass-panelled ceiling vault of this converted barn and towards the open door leading outside.

The bird ignores our efforts. Maggi retreats to make coffee, and I wander around her studio, looking at her latest series of paintings, Maelstrom. Whirlpools of mostly black brushstrokes dance and swirl in front of you as touches of bright colour – red, pink, yellow – emerge and recede. She has painted them in the last year, after suffering a heart attack on a trip to New York, where she had travelled to install an exhibition of her work at the Marlborough gallery in March 2022.

Maggi’s near-death experience has not diminished her drive to make art. She looks every inch the artist: her grey jeans, thick wool jumper and black puffer vest are all splattered with colour, and her fingernails are stained black with the paint that dominates her latest canvases. Her face is framed by a crown of silver curls and her piercing blue eyes rimmed with kohl. On her left index finger, she wears a chunky Native American silver-and-turquoise inlay ring which once belonged to her late, great love, Henrietta Moraes, a muse of Francis Bacon and the so-called Queen of Soho in the 1960s. A pink vape hangs from a lanyard round Maggi’s neck, and she puffs on it often. An enthusiastic lifelong smoker, she was instructed to quit after her stint in hospital in New York.

I have come to visit Maggi, who turns 78 in October, in a tiny village – church, graveyard, pub – seven miles from the choppy North Sea waters that she has painted again and again over the past two decades. For about five years, she would drive to the beach at Sizewell every morning to draw the waves with her late, beloved Tibetan terrier, Lucky, in tow. “I feel the sea is inside me now,” she says.

Maggi lives with her companion of 40 years, the painter Tory Lawrence, in a 17th-century cottage with a cluster of converted farm buildings nearby, on 17 acres of land. Tory is ill now, with an inoperable brain tumour that has recently left her blind. With unflinching courage and compassion, Maggi has captured the progression of Tory’s illness in her art. One triptych of oil paintings shows her first in colour – blond hair, ruddy cheeks. In the second painting, the colour has faded, and by the third it is completely gone as Tory’s face sinks in a field of grey and black (Tory, 2021). This is what it is to be an artist, Maggi says: “to not look away.”

From the beginning, Maggi has confronted death in her work, fearlessly sketching and painting those closest to her as they lay dying or dead: her early art teachers Arthur Lett-Haines and Cedric Morris; her mother and father; friends and lovers. She has even painted herself as a skeleton, lying in a coffin as a ghostly image of her face rises from one end, in “Self-Portrait” (2021), a work she describes as “quite a comic painting”. Her friend George Melly once told her she would go down in history as Maggi “Coffin” Hambling. With the same uncompromising gaze, she has depicted the effects of climate change, the war in Syria, migration, cruelty towards animals.

Now a selection of her work spanning six decades is on display at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury (until 29 October). The exhibition is a homecoming of sorts for Maggi, who was born and raised 10 miles away in Hadleigh and first visited Gainsborough’s House as a child. It is the place where she first “responded to real oil paint” and was “transported” somewhere else, she says. Before we sit to drink coffee and talk about the show, Maggi leads me to a table in the garden outside, in the hopes that once we’re gone the blue tit trapped in her studio will finally escape.

Cristina: The show includes portraits of your teachers Lett Haines and Cedric Morris, a gay couple who ran an art school down the road from your home. What do you remember about first meeting them?

Maggi: What happened was I came top in an art exam at school at the age of 14 – which was a great surprise to me – so my mother paid for me to go and stay with my art teacher, Yvonne Drewry, in Suffolk and learn about oil paint. I was painting in a field, and Yvonne came up to me. It was very hot, and insects were sticking to the painting and the brushes and everything. And she said, “There’s only one thing to do, and that’s have a cigarette,” because it would drive away the insects. So I started to smoke at the age of 14, which became inseparable from oil painting.

Then I took these first two Suffolk landscapes to show Cedric Morris, because my parents needed some sort of encouragement that it was a good idea for me to be an artist, and they’d heard of the Artists’ House, which he ran with Lett in Hadleigh, where I grew up. It was a summer evening and Lett came to the door. He was very tall and rather frightening, and I said, “Is Sir Cedric Morris at home, please?” And he said, “Cedric Morris is having his dinner.” So I said, “May I wait?” because I wasn’t going to go away again. I went inside, and Cedric was sitting at the end of this long table, and Lett was bringing him all these extraordinary things to eat, like couscous – in Suffolk, in 1960! Cedric was very nice and giggly and chatty. And then at the end of his dinner he said, “Put the paintings up.” So I balanced them on this heater thing, and he was very encouraging but did make certain criticisms. Lett wandered back in, and he made entirely the opposite criticism but was also very encouraging. He said, “I suppose you’re still at school?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, you better come and paint with us in the holidays.”

So the first day of the holidays I was there, but I was too nervous to go up to the house, so I sat in a ditch at the end of the drive and painted the ditch. Eventually I went in, and that’s really where life began. Lett was my mentor. He was the one who said the most important thing that anyone’s ever said to me about art. He said, “If you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to make your work your best friend that you can go to whatever you’re feeling – tired or bored or happy or sad or randy – and have a conversation with it.” And that’s how I’ve lived my life. And he also said, “There’s no point in being an artist unless you have imagination.” I was very lucky at the age of 15 for these things to be said to me.

“You think of how a Rothko breathes: you know what it is to be alive and what it might be like to die.”

C: After studying with Lett and Cedric, you went to Ipswich art school, and one of the works you made there is an ink drawing of a rhinoceros (“Rosie the Rhino”, 1963). I was surprised when I realised that this is a stuffed animal in a museum. She looks so alive in your piece. A lot of your work is almost like a resurrection of your subjects.

M: We were told to go and do some drawing in the museum next door. Rosie commanded the first big hall in the museum. And I regard this as my first portrait, because although she was dead and stuffed, what went on between us was very alive. It was also the first time I used ink, which you can’t make mistakes with, so the whole thing was very intense.

C: Many of your portraits are made shortly after your subject’s death – for instance, “My Mother Dead VII” (1988). Did you make this from memory?

M: No. I went and drew her in the chapel of rest in Hadleigh. People are surprised that I’ve drawn people in their coffins, but it seems quite obvious to me. It’s the last time you see them. She’d been quite ill towards the end of her life, so she had a sort of serenity about her. And also, whenever she’d posed for me previously, when I’d gone home for the weekend and started drawing her in my sketchbook, she’d sort of arrange her hair, and then she’d take her spectacles off, and then she’d say, “Have you finished?” Hopeless. So I did sort of say, “I’ve got you now, Mother. You’re not going anywhere this time.”

C: You’ve continued to paint your parents and Lett decades after they passed. Do you always work from memory, or do you ever use photographs?

M: Mostly memory. I think when someone dies, if you’ve loved them, then they go on being alive inside you. A photograph is only a statement about how the light fell at a particular moment. And a photograph is always history. The thing about oil paint and great art is that you feel as if the thing is being made in front of you. So, compared with painting, a photograph is a bit of a dead thing.

C: After Ipswich you attended Camberwell and then the Slade in London. What was art school in London like?

M: It was the 1960s, so it was the wonderful days of grants. I think it’s criminal now, people having to borrow money and pay it back. And if they’re lucky they see someone for half an hour a week for a tutorial. It’s terrible. When I got into Camberwell it was wonderful, because working, famous artists would come in to talk to us. So I worked consistently in the life room and then experimented with everything that was going on: abstract expressionism, pop art, op art and all those things. At the Slade I made conceptual art for a few years. I was quite political, and I didn’t think any of the abstract painting being made at the top of the Slade had anything to do with real people and real life. So these two boys and I made this environment which involved newspapers, turtles, an interview with my family. I must say, the cleaner at the Slade liked it better than anybody else. That was quite good. I did some street art too, and went on working conceptually for a few years. But I was always having to find someone who knew more about photography, someone who knew more about sound, and so on. So I was feeling like the impresario of the idea rather than the maker. And it did finally occur to me that the only thing I was going to make myself, with my hands, was a painting. So I returned to painting.

C: Other female artists who were at art school at that time remember quite a bit of sexism. Was that your experience?

M: I do remember there was a ridiculous feeling, particularly at Camberwell, that all the stars of the years above me seemed to be boys. So the thing was to be as good as the boys, if not better. There were many more boys than girls in those days. There was a lot of rubbish art being made.

C: In London in the 1960s you mixed with incredibly talented artists and filmmakers and so on.

M: Yes, I was a great friend of Derek Jarman. We used to go to dances at the Royal College of Art, where David Hockney would turn up wearing lots of make-up. Yes, I was part of all that.

“I draw with my left hand, with ink, in my sketchbook. After all these years my right hand is full of tricks.”

Maggi was in an extraordinary circle of creative people which included Francis Bacon. His muse Henrietta Moraes became Maggi’s lover. “She took me over completely,” Maggi has said. Maggi drank whisky in the legendary Soho club the Colony Room and danced at Chelsea’s lesbian club Gateways, where she was once thrown out for “suggestive dancing”. One of her friends, the art critic David Sylvester, went on to organise her major show at the Serpentine Gallery in 1987. Later, his daughter the painter Cecily Brown took Maggi’s life-drawing class at Morley College, which she continues to teach once a week to this day. In 1980–81, Maggi became the first Artist in Residence at the National Gallery, where the public was invited into her studio. She says painting in the presence of the work of past greats such as Rembrandt and Titian was a formative experience but also a little like being “a performing monkey”. Last year she was finally given a long overdue exhibition in the United States, at the Marlborough gallery. It was in New York that she fell ill.

C: How long were you in hospital?

M: We got to New York on a Sunday. We installed the show on Monday, and then Cecily Brown, my protégé, came to see it on Tuesday. Afterwards, we went back in a taxi to her house, and just after I’d had a tiny whisky before dinner, everything went. Everything just went.

C: You fainted?

M: Yeah.

C: And woke up in hospital?

M: Yes. It’s marvellous that it happened in New York, because if it had happened here the ambulance would never have arrived. There are no ambulances any more. I spent six weeks in Mount Sinai Hospital. The whole exhibition happened without me.

C: What was hospital like? Were you in a lot of pain or bored out of your mind?

M: When I was in the operating theatre I half woke up, and they were doing my chest with their hands – not a machine, with their hands – and I said to myself, “Well, either you’re going to live or you’re going to die,” and then I went back into another world. This tiny and wonderful Japanese woman did the operation; I had three stents put in. And then I had this awful thing down my throat for three or four days. I tried to pull it out, so my hands were tied down so I couldn’t.

C: That sounds terrible.

M: And then I got Covid in the hospital, so I was put in a room with this awful extractor fan that went on morning, noon and night, and I couldn’t sleep. It was ghastly. I was in there for 10 days. It was all paid for by my insurance, thank God.

C: Were you afraid?

M: I wasn’t really. When I said to myself, “Either you’re going to live or you’re going to die,” I was quite matter-of-fact. I didn’t get any sudden vision of my whole life.

C: Did you miss drawing while you were there?

M: I did try and do a bit. Cecily brought me some stuff, and I did a couple of scribbles. It was when I got back here that I started to make the Maelstrom paintings, which are half to do with Ukraine and half what had happened to me.

C: Is the cliché about having a new lease of life after a near-death experience true?

M: Well, I think the paintings are freer, more abandoned in a way. I can show you.

Maggi was photographed and interviewed at her studio near Saxmundham, Suffolk, an hour’s drive north-east of where she first began to paint. Above the studio door is a call to arms: “Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.” Maggi wears her own clothes throughout.

Maggi leads me back into the studio to show me her Maelstrom paintings. The blue tit has gone, and a butterfly has taken its place. “We can’t keep leaving the room because of all this nature,” Maggi exclaims in frustration. The paintings are almost violent in their energy. You can feel the determination of each brushstroke, as if it is being made right in front of you. But trying to determine a precise meaning or subject is a bit like trying to capture a cloud, to pin down and categorise something that cannot be categorised. The canvases are evanescent, revealing as much about Maggi as they do about us when we look at them.

M: This was the first one I made without a cigarette when I got back.

C: That must have been…

M: Hell!

C: Are these paintings completely abstract?

M: No, they’re not abstract at all.

C: Right. I can see a face in that one. Is that what I’m meant to be seeing?

M: You can see a face if you like.

C: If these paintings are not abstract, what is it that you’re painting?

M: I don’t know. I’m just painting.

C: Are you pleased with them?

M: I get rid of things I’m not pleased with. I destroy them.

C: Does that happen often?

M: Yes, quite a lot.

C: I’m sorry, but this is definitely the face of a dog.

M: Is it?

C: Yes, look: one eye, other eye, nose, mouth.

M: Yes, yes, I do see. Perhaps it’s Lucky.

C: Isn’t that great? Without you even realising it, perhaps she’s communicating with you from beyond. If you think about it, all art is a kind of communication with the dead. You stand in front of a Rembrandt and you feel the man, you feel the artist.

M: Exactly. I think great art brings life and death together. You think of how a Rothko breathes: you know what it is to be alive and what it might be like to die. I think great art brings you to this territory where both coexist. I think it was WH Auden who said all art is breaking bread with the dead. People have always seen things in my paintings of waves, for instance. I don’t know about them, because when something is really happening you’re not aware of it happening.

C: You speak as if you’re a conduit for something else, something greater.

M: Yes, I try to be.

C: And perhaps you express things you’re not even aware you’re expressing.

M: Yes, that’s right. Brancusi said it’s not difficult to make a work of art; the difficulty lies in being in the right state to do it, which seems to me to be completely concentrated and completely not giving a damn at the same moment.

C: You mean not giving a damn about other people’s expectations? Some of your works, such as your public sculptures – “Scallop” on Aldeburgh beach, Oscar Wilde at Charing Cross, Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green in north London – have proven quite controversial. A lot of people don’t like them. Does that bother you?

M: What can you do? When there was all the fuss about “Scallop” on Aldeburgh beach there was half a page in the Telegraph saying, “It’s got to go, take it away, nobody wants it.” And now when you open the travel section of the Telegraph there’ll be an article, “Where to go in England”, and there’s the scallop, and it will say, “Come to Aldeburgh, have the fish and chips.” They didn’t want the Eiffel Tower in the beginning either. Now it’s the symbol of Paris.

C: Do you still start each day by drawing?

M: Yes, with my left hand, with ink, in my sketchbook.

C: You’re right-handed. Why do you draw with your left hand?

M: After all these years my right hand is full of tricks. The left hand produces things you’d never think of.

C: And what do you do to switch off? Do you still play tennis?

M: Yes, yes, yes, on a Sunday morning I play doubles with three ladies of a certain age. I wouldn’t say that speed was any feature of our game, but we do love it.

C: Did you watch Wimbledon this year?

M: Yes. I was so pleased Alcaraz won the men’s final. He’s got all the finesse of Federer and all the grit of Nadal, all in one person. He’s just incredible. Also, I’ve hated Djokovic for years.

C: And do you still have a whisky in the evening to relax?

M: Yes.

C: So you didn’t have to give that up?

M: No. Christ Almighty, I couldn’t do that.

At the end of our conversation Maggi takes me for a walk on her property, down a meandering path fringed with enormous trees: a magnolia, a fig, a catalpa. We walk past Lucky’s burial spot and a small Wollemi pine from Australia, “the oldest tree in the world,” she says. As the path continues through wildflower meadows and towards the River Alde, which cuts through one corner of Maggi’s land, we stop to sit on a bench underneath an ancient oak looking out over expansive water meadows.

M: This is where I spent my evenings in lockdown. When I first came here, practically this whole meadow in front of us was covered in water. Now, because of climate change, the water is just in certain places. People used to come and skate here.

C: Perhaps, just like Gainsborough’s House, one day this entire place will be transformed into Hambling’s House, where people can come and see your art.

M: Well, I am thinking of leaving it as a sort of artists’ house, where people can come and paint. I would like that.