I recently went to an illustrated talk given by the artist Maggi Hambling as part of a fund-raising exhibition. She was, as predicted, entertaining, forthright, outspoken, though not as scurrilous as we were led to believe…. She’s talked about her life from her early art schooling in Suffolk then on to Camberwell College of Art and the first artist residency at The National Portrait Gallery in London. I sensed a melancholic resolution in her latest series of paintings, North Sea Waves, vigorous and painterly coils of froth, surf and wavebreaks. She visits the east coast daily.
Unlike JMW Turner, she doesn’t paint en plein air (she is realistic about battling with the elements) but makes numerous sketches and then works from them back in the comfort of the studio… in these new works there are no obvious references to the people, places or events of her colourful life that we have come to expect, but a quieter reflection of the self mirrored in the forces of nature. These images are paradoxically fresh and sensuous in their use of paint, but with a violent and threatening undercurrent, the variables of the sea.
I haven’t been a huge fan of Hambling’s work before now; an artist that I was only vaguely aware of, notably from her weekly appearances on the TV show Gallery with George Melly. Then, through the whimsical laughter paintings, and the notorious semi-deconstructed Scallop on Aldeburgh beach changed all that. However, when you get the rare opportunity to understand an artist’s work as a whole, inseparable from their character, their life, their experiences, you can see how how all these seemingly different elements of their work come together… the figurative sculptures, the monoprints, the potrait paintings and drawings, each purposeful, brutally honest and true to the moment.
There was one pivotal image in the slideshow for me, an early painted portrait of an old woman, crippled by arthritis, hands twisted and gnarled like the roots of an old tree, a defiant and yet vulnerable individual. This broad theme of fragility seemed to permeate throughout her work, a tougher outer shell, much like the Scallop, showing the cracks of time and yet still weathering the storm.
Hambling is a great painter, and I think under-rated, perhaps because her many artistic associations, her sharp wit and the prickly personality get in the way of the work; sometimes you need to forget who did it to appreciate it. I turned up the chance to acquire a signed copy of her new book; not because I didn’t want it or think it was good but because I am trying to curb my spending on books. Anyhow, I left the event feeling much more moved to draw, to paint, than I would from any artist’s book. If I lived a little nearer to the coast I think I would also be drawn daily to witness its power, awe and solace, as subject and matter.
Wave Breaking, 2008, and Frances Rose II (in the Jerwood Collection, London.)