Born in Sudbury, Suffolk in 1945, Maggi Hambling was encouraged ‘to give my life to art’ by the painters Cedric Morris and Lett Haines, an inseparable couple who ran a school of painting at Benton End in Suffolk (which she attended from the age of fifteen) – Ronald Blythe has described its atmosphere as ‘robust and coarse, exquisite and tentative all at once… Also faintly dangerous.’ Hambling went on to study at Ipswich School of Art, then Camberwell School of Art, and from 1967-69 at the Slade School of Fine Art.
The critic Marina Vaizey wrote of the artist’s recent portraits in 1973, ‘These are marvellous, highly idiosyncratic, fierce paintings, the searing observation of which provides an uneasy mirror for the spectator.’ This would be a fair assessment too of the portraits and self-portraits Hambling has gone on to produce in the years since.
In 1977-78, Hambling painted a self-portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery) in which she was ‘confronting the muddle of my life’, with diverse images set against a neutral background revealing inner psychic elements: a swooping gull perhaps signifying transcendence, a teapot sustenance and comforting eccentricity, a partial glimpse of a naked female body love and desire. A collaged-on Brassaï photograph ‘came from a colour supplement… a very beautiful and erotic picture… I have three arms, three hands, one for everything you need as an artist. I mean one for the brush, one for the cigarette, and one for the drink.’ Regarding the image of ‘a puffer fish being attacked by an adder, I suppose I felt I was a bit like that fish… puffing myself up but being really quite small.’
She makes the following comparison between this earlier painting and the 2011 self-portrait in the Ruth Borchard Collection: ‘Compared with the randomly scattered, often exotic imagery – adder, puffer fish, brothel photograph, Concorde et al – surrounding the figure in the 1997-98 Self-Portrait, this 2011 work restricts itself to the everyday – cigarette, whisky, ticking clock.
‘As with the earlier painting, the gaze of the viewer may escape the confrontation of my left eye, but (I hope) return to it. The profile hovering beside me, that of a rather cross Henrietta Moraes [muse and model for Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon in the 1950s and 60s – and whose ‘raw, intense and vulnerable’ presence – in Hambling’s words – is the subject of a number of tender, viscerally direct charcoal drawings made by her from life in 1998] is a calligraphic jolt in contrast to the heavy impasto of the rest.
‘In the 1997-98 painting, the right side of the face is obliterated by the wing of a gull in flight, here it is a ghost. In all my self-portraits, since the NPG piece, the face is divided – one side more present than the other, oscillating between the conscious and the unconscious.
‘The sudden need to paint a self-portrait, in effect an occasional diary, arises every few years. The 2011 work might be titled, like the song, “Cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women”.’
In the late 1970s, Hambling made a portrait of the Outsider Art gallerist Victor Musgrave. ‘He told me that I had what was essential for an artist: the right balance between staying vulnerable and maintaining a backbone of steel.’ In its mix of fiercely focused details such as a penetrating single eye and the burning vermilion cigarette tip alongside quite oceanic surges of deliquescent brushwork, Hambling’s 2011 self-portrait reveals a similar equanimity of qualities. She appears both vulnerable and assertive here, ruminative yet poignantly uproarious, evidently buoyed up by the golden spirit in her glass; her cigarette gives off curlicues of pale turquoise smoke which appear, paradoxically enough, invigorating rather than toxic. Meanwhile, the ticking clock reminds the viewer of the mortal flux of impastoed flesh against, literally here, a background of eternal unvarying white.
Of Francis Bacon, whom Hambling met at Benton End, she says, ‘He was certainly the living artist I most respected, for his ‘touch’ (the way he applied paint) and his confrontational subject matter. He has that ability to make you feel simultaneously what it is to be alive, and what it is to die.’ In her own portraits – which include a 1981 depiction of the comedian Max Wall in his role as Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Derek Jarman from memory (1994) against a backdrop of transporting Yves Klein blue – ‘I do try to become a channel for the person in front of me – or in my memory or imagination… I have to get all my baggage out of the way.’
Hambling’s public sculptures include A Conversation with Oscar Wilde (1998), facing Charing Cross Station, and Scallop, sited on Aldeburgh Beach, Suffolk, in celebration of the composer Benjamin Britten. She says, ‘Art has bonded me indissolubly to Suffolk’, where she now lives.
Her hauntingly compassionate 2013 site-specific installation War Requiem – comprising some fifty portraits of fractured faces of war victims and paintings of savagely spectral battlefields – was acclaimed by critics and public alike. Now owned by Aldeburgh Music, it is reinstalled at Snape Maltings for one month every year.
Purchased from the 2011 Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait competition.