Books: The life, times and conversation of Maggi Hambling, “the female Francis Bacon”

The first chart of Hambling’s extraordinary 60 years


In this monograph Andrew Lambirth charts for the first time, through a series of conversations in a chronological fashion, the first 60 years of the extraordinary and at times hilarious life of the woman many regard as the equal of Francis Bacon, the artist Maggi Hambling.

There are, at the same time, many incisive comments made by Hambling on the making and creating of art from drawings, oil paintings, watercolours, mono-prints, to clay and bronze sculptures. She says, for example: “Drawing is the most intimate thing an artist does...whether you draw from life, when the eye is out there on the truth, or from imagination when it’s looking inside for the truth. It’s the rhythm of the subject.” The book is filled with more than 200 colour reproductions of her work: from her adolescent beginnings, and intriguing archival photography which serve to punctuate and elucidate the flow of conversation throughout.

Hambling is represented in most of the major collections in the UK and in the Yale Center for British Art in the US. In Britain, Hambling is best known as an acclaimed painter of people. Her approach has been both experimental and diverse, intimate and observational. Memory and acute observation are

crucial to her way of working. The commissioned portraits include the eminent scientist, Dorothy Hodgkin, who is depicted with restless multiple hands, and the authority on surrealism and jazz, George Melly is captured “as though passing across the space of the canvas, rather than being tied down to any particular place”. There are also innumerable drawings and paintings of her father and mother; friends, mentors (such as David Sylvester) and lovers; snatched observations of her local public house habitués; Francis Bacon and his muse, Henrietta Moraes; Sickert-like images inspired by newspaper photographs, which include President Nixon and Michael Jackson; and anonymous street beggars and prostitutes.

Her few public sculptures have attracted controversy and divided critics and the public alike. The cast bronze, A conversation with Oscar Wilde, depicts the author as though emerging from his coffin (which doubles up as a seat) sited opposite Charing Cross Station, London. More recently a steel structure, Scallop, redolent with all the meanings and associations that this single word can carry, was created for the beach at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, as a memorial to Benjamin Britten, whose music Hambling has admired since her student days.

Born in1945, into a comfortable middle-class family, with aspirations to do social good, Hambling grew up as the youngest of three in rural Suffolk. She comes across as a loud and exuberant child who was evidently not tamed by a conventional upbringing. At 15 she introduced herself to the influential artist couple, Lett-Haines and Cedric Morris, and attended their informal East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing during her school holidays. This early instruction had a life-long influence on her: using oil paint, she was introduced to the role and power of colour and portraiture. Indeed it is what Mr Lambirth calls her “shocking colour scheme”, particularly the use of turquoise, which bridles the fluidity of her paint strokes. Hambling went onto the (now-defunct) Ipswich School of Art and then to the swinging London of the 1960s. She attended Camberwell School of Art (1964-67)—where she studied under Robert Medley, head of painting, who became a life long friend and mentor—and the Slade School of Art (1967-69).

During this time, Hambling was lucky enough to be hand-picked for David Sylvester’s art history seminars, and, with her fellow roommate, Keith Milow, helped in 1965 with the installation of Alberto Giacometti’s exhibition at the Tate Gallery, curated by Sylvester. The book reveals other hitherto undocumented aspects of Hambling’s early career: her experimentation included kinetic and conceptual pieces; and, while on a Boise Travel Award (1971) in New York, stream-of-conscious poetry, small collages and street photography. The American “can-do” ethos had a lasting impact on her and she claims to have visited every art museum in New York. Hambling went on to feature in seminal exhibitions: these included the 1976 Arts Council travelling exhibition, “Human clay”, curated by R.B. Kitaj. In 1980 she was appointed the first artist in residence at the National Gallery, London. Hambling has also created memorable paintings of empyrean sunrises and sunsets, and her most recent and large-scale works conjure up the animalistic forces of the North Sea.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The life, times and conversation of “the female Francis Bacon”'