“Do you like plants?” asks Maggi Hambling, gesturing towards several succulents and cacti prospering in the mid-morning sun. She takes a potted number from a white trough and raises it to me. “This one’s a begonia rex, Lett gave me the original cuttings; you can have it,” she offers. The crimson undersides of its mottled leaves gleam in the sunlight. At Hambling’s south London studio, we’re discussing her forthcoming show, Real Time, at Marlborough Gallery, New York, her friendships with John Berger and Derek Jarman, while drinking black coffee.
Under her desk, Hambling’s pug, Peggy, rolls around, courting us for attention and sneezing. “What do you think of Peggy’s bow tie?” she asks. “Yes, very becoming,” I respond. Hambling lives between London and Suffolk, commuting to the capital every week to deliver the same life-drawing class she has taught since 1969. She is a force that has shaped the careers of many artists – including Cecily Brown, who first attended Hambling’s lessons on the insistence of her father, David Sylvester – and a generous mentor, whose unyielding dedication to the power of art is contagious. She keeps a tight routine, when she saunters early into the studio – lights a cigarette – to survey yesterday’s spoils. When I last visited, a self-portrait hung against the powdery white walls; the time before, a dead hammerhead shark in heavy impasto was descending a canvas.
Arthur Lett-Haines and Cedric Morris were Hambling’s teachers, men she describes as having “independence of spirit.” She recounts her initial encounter with the gay couple as “the moment life began” – a turn of phrase that could easily apply to a person, scene or movement in the lives of many queer people. In the otherwise highly conservative environs of rural Suffolk, the couple inducted Hambling into their bohemian enclave at the age of fifteen in 1960. It astounds to think of their East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing (first established in 1937) thriving in such a place. Haines and Morris took inspiration from the liberal teaching approach adopted by the private art academies in Paris. Rumour has it that an unextinguished cigarette that belonged to a seventeen-year-old Lucian Freud was responsible for causing the fire that destroyed the original school building in Dedham in 1939.
Perhaps my favourite painting by Hambling is a portrait of her beloved teacher, Lett Laughing (1975–76). Famously, Haines imparted to her a mantra that has remained with her throughout her career: “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 and have a conversation with it.” The statement situates artmaking outside the immediate: a rare continuum in a disposable culture. This is art as a way of life: what you might see in a square in Newington Green (A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, 2020), on the beach in Aldeburgh (Scallop, 2003) or on the pavement near Charing Cross (A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, 1998) are only moments in a 60-year arc of ongoing artistic production in oil paint, bronze, ceramic, ink, charcoal or watercolour.
Maggi Hambling, Middle plane magazine, London, 2020 © Juergen Teller, All Rights Reserved
Hambling’s story is well-documented. And, similarly to David Hockney, she has attained mythical status in the British art world as much for her character as her pictures. She’s the last of her kind: a confidante to some of the country’s most influential artists and writers, including Francis Bacon (Daniel Farson’s 1989 photograph of Bacon outside The French House sits on Hambling’s cistern), Berger, Jarman and Sylvester. Sylvester curated Hambling’s major exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 1987, an event she cites, along with her stint as the first artist-in-residence at London’s National Gallery in 1980–81, as one of the most significant in her career. “I learnt about space in painting at the National Gallery,” she says.
We talk about Soho’s famous drinking club, The Colony Room (1948–2008), and Chelsea’s lesser-known lesbian club, Gateways (1931–85). “Gina [the landlady] ejected me from there for “dancing suggestively,”” laughs Hambling. “What dancing isn’t suggestive?” Nowadays, she’s less of a hedonist than her public image might have you believe: “Everyone has this idea of me that I’m at parties and drunk, but I keep myself to myself.” Hambling has followed Lett’s advice “to go to art with whatever you’re feeling” to process the deaths of her former lover, Henrietta Moraes, and her parents. Moraes – the muse of both Bacon and Hambling – was the subject of her book Maggi and Henrietta (2001) and appeared in Touch: Works on Paper at The British Museum in 2016–17. Many regarded Moraes as ‘the Queen of Soho’, the Kiki de Montparnasse of her day. John Deakin’s famous photograph of her (Henrietta Moraes Lying Naked on a Bed, c.1963) adorns the mantle in Hambling’s hall.
“Everyone has this idea of me that I’m at parties and drunk, but I keep myself to myself.”
Maggi Hambling photographed at Ipswich Art School, 1963
Hambling also makes exquisite ceramics: injured yet exuberant clay works that possess everything good art should. For example, the small but spritely Hermaphrodite Self Portrait (1993) stands like a tripod on outstretched legs with a camp cockatiel swirl reaching upwards, washed in colours. “That’s in the Victoria & Albert Museum – unless they’ve broken it,” she quips when I mention it. The work is Hambling’s engagement with gender as an irreverent but vulnerable expression. “They’re all playful experiments,” she says when I press her for more information. “I pushed clay as far as it could go.” To my mind, they’re amongst her best works.
Hambling has two sides: one that proclaims from the front door, ‘Come in!’; one that politely makes you a cup of coffee and apologies when there’s no milk. The poet Victor Musgrave famously said to her: “I know that you’re an artist because you have this combination of remaining vulnerable to your subject and a backbone of steel that carries you on, whatever anybody else says.” There’s a profound sensitivity beneath her bravado that suggests an easy oscillation between coquettishness, confidence, empathy and brooding. She wears her heroes and friends on her sleeve, painting them again and again, whether it’s Bacon, Berger, Moraes or her beloved Oscar Wilde. I take another sip of coffee and think about how artists today – for better or worse – are more concerted, administrative, careful, careerist and healthy. Long gone are the days of endless cigarettes and whiskey at The Colony Room or Gateways.
Maggi Hambling, ‘Head of Francis Bacon’, oil on canvas, 1985
.If you grew up in the 1960s, it was American art that affected you.”
Now, the begonia rex resides in the window of this writer’s flat. A reminder, perhaps, that what we inherit from our teachers extends beyond their words: the plant is a peculiar conduit of spirit; I feel a responsibility to keep it alive and carefully distribute its cuttings. At 76, Hambling is facing an American audience for the first time. “Is New York somewhere you’d look to as a young artist?” I ask. “Well, it was everything – Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol. If you grew up in the 1960s, it was American art that affected you,” she replies. Real Time will consist entirely of paintings, addressing themes as broad-reaching as climate change (Edge series, 2015–ongoing) and grief (Walls of Water series, 2010–ongoing). The Walls of Water series demonstrates a breakdown in Hambling’s approach to structure in painting: frenzied impressions of ruthless seas beat against walls. She’s asking us to think about the impermanence of experience – of life. “One thing follows another; one thing grows out of another,” she says, when I ask about the lineage of the work’s development. I think about Haines and Morris. “I wonder if Fran Lebowitz is available for the opening,” quips Hambling.
Maggi Hambling, ‘Hermaphrodite’ self-portrait, clay, 1993
Maggi Hambling ‘Real Time’ runs at Marlborough Gallery, New York, from 10th March, 2022.
Sean Burns is an artist, editor and writer based in London, UK.
Maggi Hambling is an artist based in London and Suffolk, UK. She is the subject of a recent BBC documentary, Making Love with the Paint (2020). In 2019, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, and CAFA, Beijing, staged a major retrospective of her work. In 2022, an exhibition of her paintings will open at Marlborough Gallery, New York.