‘We’re so used to looking at film and television news and all of that, and it all sort of swims past us. We are passive and desensitised to it, numb if you like. I feel you can respond to what happens in life in a different way with oil paint.’
After Nyne speaks with award winning British artist Maggi Hambling in the midst of her eighth solo show at Marlborough Fine Arts, ‘Edge’.
‘You know that song “I am what I am”? Some people like my work, some people hate my work, and some people are indifferent.’
I’m in Maggi Hambling’s South London studio and we are talking about ‘The Scallop’, Hambling’s 15ft, stainless steel tribute to Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk. Plants line the window panes, sketchbooks are stacked high, and the air is seasoned with a dizzying mix of oil-paint and smoke.
‘It amazed me the reaction, because I thought it was one of the more beautiful things I’d managed to make. I thought Aldeburgh might be grateful, but some people felt quite the opposite.’ Hambling lets her cigarette-butt fall, treads the remaining embers out on the floor, and adds, ‘All the graffiti was so boring, it happened 13 times, not recently, touch wood. Maybe whoever was doing it has moved away from Aldeburgh.’
Hambling’s intense blue eyes crease as she laughs at the thought. Her amusement at her critics can be traced to some early advice from art teacher Yvonne Drewry. Hambling was ‘on the brink of tears’ after facing ridicule from peers for her paintings of the night sky, when Drewry said ‘that has to be water off a duck’s back. You’re your own best critic, take no notice of anyone’s response’.
Hambling is certainly known for ignoring her critics, along with inspiring controversy, and her lifelong, bar five years, relationship with smoking, of which Drewry could also take the credit. ‘My mother had paid for me to stay with Yvonne Drewry during the summer with my first set of oil paints when I was fourteen. It was very hot on the edge of this field where I was painting, and insects were sticking to the paints, the brushes, everything. I asked “what shall I do?” …and she said, “There’s only one thing to do, have a cigarette!”.’
After taking her first two oil paintings to Benton End, or the Artists’ House, ‘notorious for every vice under the sun – which made it quite exciting’, Hambling was invited to spend time there under the tutelage of Cedric Morris and Lett Haines. ‘I got there on the first day of the holidays but was too shy to go up into the house, so I sat at the end of the drive and painted a ditch, and then the artist Lucy Harwood came out ringing a large cowbell, and so I went in for tea, they always had tea in the mornings, and that’s really where life began’.
Hambling would help Haines in the kitchen, whilst prepping food he would impart ‘the most important thing anyone’s ever said to me, which was “if I was going to be an artist I had to make my work my best friend”, so whatever I was feeling I could go to my work and have a conversation with it – tired, bored, happy, randy, sad, whatever I was feeling – that’s how I’ve led my life.’
‘The other thing he said was, “No good thinking you can be an artist unless you have imagination” and that was very important. I was lucky.’
Hambling’s most recent paintings for the ‘Edge’ exhibition harness this imagination, focusing her individual perception within the very real, and very uncertain, here and now.
To read more