An afternoon with Maggi Hambling
The beloved British artist talks drinking with Francis Bacon, celebrating Mary Wollstonecraft, and an upcoming collaboration with Middle Plane magazine
By Louis Wise Photography by Juergen Teller and Haider Ackermann Above image: Maggi Hambling, photographed by Juergen Teller, commissioned by Middle Plane Magazine, London, for issue no. 3
Maggi Hambling turned 75 on 23 October, and it’s safe to say she is being duly feted. The British artist has got a show of new paintings at London’s Marlborough Gallery, a statue of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft about to be unveiled in Stoke Newington, and a collaboration with the magazine Middle Plane – a concoction of art and fashion entirely devoted to her.
It’s all a celebration, sure, but the press release for the exhibition also calls it a ‘self-reckoning.’ Is it? Hambling’s eyes, fox-like at the best of times, go positively feral.
‘What does that mean?’ she scoffs in her signature posh croak, puffing on an umpteenth cigarette. We are talking on the pavement outside the Marlborough in order to accommodate a lifetime’s habit. ‘I just do the same thing every day. I get up very early and go into the studio – 5am in the summer and 6am in the winter.’
Above right: Maggi Hambling, photographed by Juergen Teller, commissioned by Middle Plane Magazine, London, for issue no. 3
It’s this dogged devotion to her craft that’s made Hambling one of Britain’s most cherished living artists, a CBE since 2010, with her work in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and Tate. The respectability of these acquisitions nicely offsets the loucheness of her life. Hambling, who lives with her fellow artist Victoria ‘Tory’ Dennistoun in Suffolk, was long a regular of Soho’s legendary Colony Rooms, drinking with the likes of Francis Bacon and George Melly. For her, that both is and isn’t another age.
‘People go on being alive as far as I’m concerned,’ she says, clad in a velvet black blazer, a pile of silver jewellery, and a pair of silver McQueen trainers. On one finger she wears a colourful Navajo ring given to her by a former lover, the Soho muse Henrietta Moraes. Transfixed by mortality, she famously painted Moraes, Melly and her parents just after their passing. ‘And I never cross them out of my address book if they die. It’s full of dead people,’ she says. ‘It makes it quite muddling to find who I want to find.’
She bristles when asked if she’s still working at the same pace. ‘Yes,’ she hisses. ‘People say to me, “Oh, you still play tennis?” Well, yes, of course I still play tennis. On Sunday mornings, with three other ladies of a certain age.’ A nano-pause. ‘Speed is not a feature of my game.’
Maggi Hambling in Haider Ackermann, photographed by Middle Plane Magazine, courtesy of Middle Plane Magazine, London
Of course, what also makes her extra alive is her collaboration with Middle Plane. It proposes a deep delve into all things Hambling, with the artist clad in various designer clothes, her work made into clothing, and shoots inspired by her passions (for example, meringues). Its Editor-in-Chief Roni Monhait says working with Hambling was a dream. ‘She knows what she wants – it was easy, because she’s very easy, and a lot of artists are not.’
As for Hambling, she claims that ‘it was quite a shock to me, when at the age of whatever I’m about to be, I was suddenly a fashion model.’ She is enchanted by the new creations. ‘It’s like seeing my paintings move around on these clothes, you know?’
‘“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” And so I paint, as I hope you can see, that feeling. But when I come out of the studio, I can have a bit of a laugh’
Clockwise from top: 'Arguing', oil on canvas, 2019, 36 x 48 inches courtesy of Malborough, London; Maggi Hambling in Haider Ackermann, photographed by Middle Plane Magazine, courtesy of Middle Plane Magazine, London; 'Laughing', oil on canvas, 2018, 60 x 48, courtesy of Malborough, London
One day at the influential East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, where she studied in the early 1960s, Francis Bacon tried to talk to Hambling about a painting of hers. She was so nervous, she didn’t say a thing (‘Is she deaf and dumb?’, asked Bacon afterwards). It’s hard to imagine her being lost for words now. Today, the only thing she is discreet about is her forthcoming statue of Wollstonecraft, to be unveiled next month. What do you think of Wollstonecraft herself? ‘A great woman.’ Have you always been a feminist? Another puff, another shrug. ‘Well… apparently.’
Her concerns are somewhere else. ‘Real life for me is in the studio when I’m working – the rest is a charade, really.’ Soon she is quoting Wilde again. ‘“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”,’ she says, gazing down the Mayfair street. ‘And so I paint, as I hope you can see, that feeling. But when I come out of the studio, I can have a bit of a laugh.’
Middle Plane Magazine issue no. 3, Maggi’s Mag launches in November; middleplane.com
'Young Dancing Bear', oil on canvas, 2019, 48 x 36 inches, courtesy of Malborough, London
Maggi Hambling, photographed by Juergen Teller, commissioned by Middle Plane Magazine, London, for issue no.3