Maggi Hambling, 1945-
By Eilís Doolan
Maggi Hambling is a pioneering contemporary British painter and sculptor, born in Suffolk, England on the 23rd of October 1945. Amidst the current trend of fashionable and sensational contemporary art, when painting seems to be becoming unfashionable, Hambling’s figurative work distinguishes herself as a talented draughtsman. Her large and evocative paintings are captivating in their sense of immediacy. Hambling says that “the crucial thing that only a painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you.”
Art came into Hambling’s life as a shock. During a school art exam at age fourteen, Hambling describes that she flicked paint on her canvas in an attempt to attract the attention of the invigilator, whom she was in love with. When the results of the exam came out a few years later, she was the top of arts, to her own surprise. Hambling started her artistic training soon after, under Lett Haines and Cedric Morris, the founders of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. Today, her artwork is represented in all major British collections from the British Museum to the Tate, as well as many other collections abroad. She was honoured in 1980, when she was made the first artist in residence at the National Gallery.
Perhaps her best-known work is Hambling’s memorial sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde. The sculpture was completed in 1998, but attracted a great deal of controversy. Located in London’s Adelaide street, Hambling’s sculpture is a polished stone sarcophagus, from which a bronze bust of Wilde seems to emerge, gesturing with a cigarette in hand. It resembles a bench on which visitors can sit and converse with Wilde. The piece was famously criticised for being too whimsical, poorly executed, and disgraceful towards Wilde’s legacy.
In a new series of laughing portraits, Hambling uses her creative practice as a grieving tool. She describes the process of painting one particular work as having started out trying to paint mist, but eventually turning the canvas upside down, to find an image of her father, who recently passed away. The painting is an illustration of certainty and uncertainty, both in terms of vision clouded by mist, and in terms of the certainty and uncertainty of death. Death has featured previously in Hambling’s work—she draws loved ones (including her father and mother) on their deathbeds, even in their coffins. Death, she believes, is “the most natural thing in the world”, and her art seems to serve as a tool to work through it.
A significant portion of Hambling’s artwork features her lover and muse Henrietta Moraes, the ‘Queen of Soho’ who was painted by Francis Bacon more than a dozen times. After meeting in 1998, Hambling noted in her sketchbook: “I have become Henrietta’s subject, rather than she mine.” The portraits of Henrietta Moraes, who died aged 67, seem just to grasp onto a sense of loss and remembrance—the paint strokes are transitory, thick, full of vivacity—they walk the line between hesitancy and certainty. Though her oeuvre has not been without controversy, it is undoubtable that Hambling’s paintings and drawings are intense and energetic, sensual and consumed with the idea with death. She describes every painting as a “love affair”, onto which she empties her baggage and releases her emotions.
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“Maggi Hambling: Every portrait is like a love affair.” Tate. 3 August 2018. Accessed 20 October 2018. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/maggi-hambling-1242/maggi-hambling-every-portrait-love-affair.
“Maggi Hambling: Walls of Water.” The National Gallery. Accessed 20 October 2018. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/past/maggi-hambling-walls-of-water.
“Maggi Hambling (British, born 1945).” Artnet. Accessed 20 October 2018. http://www.artnet.com/artists/maggi-hambling/2.