Had Maggi Hambling not been tutored by Yvonne Drewry, the history of contemporary art would have been very different. Drewry, a teacher at Amberfield School in Ipswich, Suffolk, taught a young Hambling — how to be an artist. Hambling’s art teacher defines the true value of arts education — it is beyond social or economic benefits, because it expands the mind and soul.
Hambling greatly credits her art teacher’s influence on her life and art. Being an artist had never crossed her mind as a child. But it took an art exam to spark her interest. “There was an art exam at school when I was 14. Having done nothing until the last 15 minutes, I was amazed that when results were announced, my painting had come top. I realised I must look into this business,” says Hambling.
Nearly six decades later, Hambling is considered one of the greatest living artists. She says she does not belong to any school or trend, but critics believe she is an important figurative artist.
Norman Rosenthal, monotype, 1992
Hambling, who started drawing at an early age, began painting later. Once, she stayed up late trying to paint the night sky visible from her bedroom window. The next day, she took the paintings to show her friends. “All the girls were laughing at them. I had stayed awake until two in the morning to do it. I was on the point of tears. Yvonne Drewry took to me to one side and said, ‘You have to be tough ... you’re your own best critic, take no notice. It has to be water off a duck’s back.’ That was a wonderful thing to be told.”
Hambling takes all criticism with a pinch of salt. “I really don’t think it matters. I would hand on the best advice anyone gave me: make your work your best friend.”
Now, an exhibition titled “Maggi Hambling — Touch: Works on Paper” at the British Museum consolidates her reputation as one of Britain’s national treasures. At the opening in September, Hambling said it was “humbling to be a Hambling” in such a grand setting.
Hambling’s work encapsulates her direct and committed engagement with her subject. Many of the works on display at the museum are showing for the first time. “Touch” showcases pieces spanning Hambling’s lifetime. It includes an ink drawing of a stuffed rhinoceros at Ipswich Museum, created when the artist was only 17. The display includes moving studies of her parents on their deathbeds that take all that nervous energy and forge it into the grim and stirring act of remembrance.
Hambling is best described as an outspoken public artist, with a string of criticism and controversies, who also makes art that moves people deeply.
Curator of the exhibition Jennifer Ramkalawon says Hambling should be viewed in the same category as David Hockney and Lucian Freud. “In her striking drawings she has the innate ability to capture the essence of her subject either through rough graphite lines, a few soft strokes of charcoal or delicate ink wash. For her, drawing is the most direct and intimate means of responding to the world. The exhibition is called ‘Touch’ from this concept of a deep connection between the artist and the subject being drawn. Her prints [also included in the show] reveal not only her technical skill and spontaneity, but also her relish in the physicality of the medium, seen in the luscious textures she creates with ink.
“Hambling is a fierce seeker of truth. She is, above all, an honest artist. This is particularly apparent in her drawings of her dead parents. She does not shy away from death or her own personal pain and as a result her work in this instance is tender but never sentimental,” says Ramkalawon.
Works on paper
“The touch on the paper is what makes the thing alive or not,” she says of her work. Hambling’s versatility in many media perhaps hints at her sociability. Her portraits have a unique likability. The sitters seem to look at you with familiarity and you sort of know who they are before reading the caption, which themselves always tell a story.
“The hope is that a painting, drawing or sculpture will speak for itself, purely visually. But in the case of the British Museum exhibition I was required to elaborate in words. For instance, ‘Rhino’ and ‘Wall of Water’ monotype with words,” says Hambling.
The British Museum was the first national institution to extensively collect Hambling’s works on paper. In 1985 the museum acquired the drawing of her former teacher Cedric Morris on his deathbed. Hambling’s first series of monotypes, sensuous studies of the nude, were purchased soon after. This exhibition examines Hambling’s drawings and prints — from early student drawings and etchings to portraits of artist and critic John Berger, actor Stephen Fry and curator Norman Rosenthal.
Sebastian in a Hermes scarf (detail), charcoal on paper, 2004
Over the years, Hambling has spent time in the British Museum Study Room examining the works of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh. “It is an exhilarating sensation to actually handle a Van Gogh drawing because drawing is the most intimate thing an artist does.”
This year marks the bicentenary of Francis Towne’s 1816 bequest, which established the tradition of artists donating their works to the British Museum. Hambling will make a major donation of around 15 of her works.
“Touch” consists around a quarter from British Museum’s own collection, with loans from private collections, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate. The remaining works are from Hambling’s personal collection.
The exhibition opens with a life-size and striking charcoal portrait of the writer, artist and Soho dandy Sebastian Horsley, who Hambling describes as “an exotic wild animal”. He is drawn wearing nothing but a silk scarf and introduces one of the major themes of the show, the human form.
The exhibition will continue with a display of some of Hambling’s earliest work from the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition concludes with recent work made in 2015, from the new series, titled “Edge”, which addresses the issue of global warming.
The museum’s department of prints and drawings contains a national collection of Western prints and drawings, which the public can access for research in the Study Room. The collection is also available to research online at www.britishmuseum.org.
Besides, a fully illustrated book “Maggi Hambling — Touch: Works on Paper” by Ramkalawon is available for sale at £35 (about Dh162).
Hambling is perhaps best known for her compelling portraits, paintings of the sea and her celebrated and controversial public sculptures, “A Conversation with Oscar Wilde” (1998) and “Scallop” (2003). The latter is a tribute to the composer Benjamin Britten — who spent much of his life in Aldeburgh, and was previously marked only by his gravestone and a window in the church. The £70,000 tribute uses four tonnes of steel, and is meant to evoke a line from Britten’s best-known opera, “Peter Grimes”: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” “Scallop”, a three-metre-high stainless-steel structure that opened with peals of adoration and howls of horror, has over time grown to be an iconic part of the landscape.
Her expansive painted canvases of waves breaking is a picture one cannot easily forget. Forging an immediate and powerful connection with the subject being drawn, the concept of “touch” pervades these works, distilling the themes of life and death that underscore her art. Hambling has just won the Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year Award for her contribution to art.
Hambling says art is the food for human spirit to thrive. “The role of art has never changed, since the drawings made on the walls of caves. Art is a gift from the gods, to be honoured and offered back up to them. As we all need food for the stomach, we equally need food for the human spirit.”
She admires Rembrandt for the depth of his feeling for humanity. “His work never grows stale,” she says.
Finding a muse is not always as easy. The process for Hambling is spontaneous yet not just that. “Often a painting can take weeks or months before the muse arrives and finally a little bit of magic happens. But there is no rule. Sometimes magic can occur in half an hour. If a painting finally dies on me, I destroy it,” says Hambling.
Every stroke seeks to portray the truth. But truth is debatable and sometimes sparks controversies. “‘A Conversation with Oscar Wilde’ and ‘Scallop’ were vilified by the critics but celebrated by the public. I had not anticipated any controversy, so that was a shock. But if a work of art divides people, it must have some life in it,” says Hambling.
Living on the edge
“My next exhibition is entitled ‘Edge’. It will open at Marlborough Fine Art, London, on March 2, 2017. The paintings and sculpture are my response to mankind’s destruction of our planet, the world’s never-ending condition of war and the vulnerability of our lives as we habitually live ‘on the edge’,” says Hambling.
Hambling has exhibited with Marlborough for 20 years and this is her eighth solo exhibition with the gallery. Hambling’s work offers a counterweight to the careful irony and self-conscious allusion of much contemporary art, demanding a direct and unmediated encounter with the viewer. The new works succeed in persuading the viewer that we are present at, and indeed become part of, their making. We are “on the edge”, confronted by the fragility of life — of both ours and that of the planet.
The artist has never been afraid of addressing big themes and delivers the simultaneous presence of life and death in her work. In this new series, polar icecaps melt, Hamlet questions, and human vulnerability is continually — and viscerally — expressed. We are asked not so much what do we think, but rather, what do we feel.
Hambling, who has never exhibited in the Middle East, expresses keen interest and curiosity on the possibilities of showing in the UAE someday.
Archana R.D. aka B’lu is an artist-journalist based in the UAE who writes on global art and culture.
“Maggi Hambling — Touch: Works on Paper” runs at British Museum, London, until January 29, 2017. “Edge” will run at Marlborough Fine Art, London, from March 2 to April 1, 2017.