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A Brush With Death

By John Maier

Maggi Hambling on art, smoking and death.

On 8 March 2022, Maggi Hambling was in Manhattan making last minute preparations for the unveiling of her debut New York show. Opening night was in two days, and she had a packed schedule: innumerable meetings, obligatory public appearances, and magazine interviews, including this one. What a bore! Then she cleared her schedule by having an enormous heart attack.

Paramedics arrived in minutes to the home of the expressionist painter Cecily Brown, in whose garden Hambling had been drinking whisky, and administered chest compressions. Hambling, unconscious, was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where a ‘tiny Japanese doctor’ put three stents into the arteries in her neck. The celebrated artist then became a semi-permanent installation in the ICU. She’d been there for ten days when her agent tentatively suggested to me that we might have to re-arrange this interview in light of Maggi’s ongoing near-death experience. Typical. People are always trying to wriggle out of things on the flimsiest pretexts.

Still, it is rather a glamorous thing to have done – staging a perfectly-timed heart attack on the eve of one’s New York debut – I say to Hambling, sitting in her studio in Suffolk several weeks later. ‘Glamorous!’ she thunders at me. ‘I didn’t do it by choice!’ A pause. ‘I suppose if I had died it would have been very good from the show’s point of view.’ Unfortunately, Maggi can’t remember much of her ordeal, having been unconscious for much of it. ‘Everything just went a complete blank… I remember waking up and they were doing that thing to my chest [manual compressions],’ she recalls. ‘I said to myself, “Bloody hell – this is either going to work, or not,” and then I went off into another world again. I woke up in the ICU with this great plastic ghastly thing in my mouth which was enabling me to breath, and which I kept trying to pull out, so they had to tie my hands down.’ Gosh, I say. ‘Gosh,’ she mimics back at me. ‘It was all quite a thing, dear boy! It was all quite a thing!’

Hambling’s Suffolk pile – a saggy, chaotic cottage – and the surrounding water meadows were left to her in 1994 in the will of her patron, Lady Gwatkin, for what Hambling describes as ‘lesbionic reasons’. (Lady Gwatkin used to insist on paying well over the odds for Maggi’s paintings, and at their slightly strained tête-à-tête diners would conclude proceedings by attempting what Hambling recalls as ‘a more than social kiss’.) The adjoining studio, where Hambling sprawls out on the sofa during our interview, is a bright, disorderly space. Papers, books, large plants, and cans of Special Brew pile up, alongside rows of canvases propped against walls that are marked everywhere by stray lashings of paint like blood spattering at a crime scene. We are joined by her pet pug, Peggy – who sleeps next to Maggi on the sofa, and farts quietly throughout our interview – and a much larger number of pet flies that enjoy throwing themselves against the room’s many skylights. (Don’t all these insects distract you when you’re working? ‘Not much, I don’t really notice ’em. They’re flies, what’s wrong with them!’ Maggie says protectively.)

Hambling is back at work again. She gets up at 5am every day in summer, I learn to my horror. ‘I come in here and make a drawing, and then I start work.’ Her work is now ‘angrier’. After five weeks in hospital, where she convalesced by reading Just William (‘Just William kept me going… you know, he always finds a way somehow’), Hambling is making a series of paintings about Ukraine.

She is angry – angry, and, let’s face it, a little grouchy. She has just given up smoking and feels unstimulated. At regular intervals, her phone goes off loudly at the other end of the room – the ringtone a brassy rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’. ‘Shut up!’ Maggi shouts half-heartedly at it, from a reclining position. (This attachment to the Queen is a little unexpected: there’s also a slightly-smaller-than-life coloured stencil of the smiling monarch in one of the out-house windows, as if our head of state was being kept as a compliant hostage in Maggi’s shed. ‘I love the Queen,’ Hambling affirms – ‘What’s wrong with loving the Queen? Many people love the Queen.’) The phone goes off again. Shall I fetch it for her? ‘No, no, leave it – it will stop in a minute,’ Hambling insists, with an air of expertise in these matters.

To quit smoking is no small business for Hambling. She has long been one of the country’s most prolific smokers. She has always refused to be photographed unless holding a cigarette: invariably one brandished in the same manner of camp gesture she gave to Oscar Wilde in her statue of him. When she (briefly) gave up in 2005, she had a fake cigarette made so that she could be photographed holding that instead. In a famous altercation during the filming of a Channel 4 panel show, Hambling refused to answer any questions if she wasn’t allowed to huff and puff her way through proceedings; the producers, perhaps underestimating her resolve, refused to compromise, and Hambling, keeping up her end of the bargain, sat through the recording in silence.

Perhaps Hambling is still slightly pooped from her New York adventure, but she seems to have acquired a softer touch in the intervening years. Her appearance remains as fearsome as ever: the wire mass of grey hair; the front tooth, like a pirate’s, capped in Yves Klein blue; and, today, a rather butch outfit – a black gilet and corduroy trousers covered in authenticating splashes of white paint. Familiar too is the stern resting facial expression, with camp little darting eyes that flicker archly sideways every so often, as if to an invisible neighbour – a signal that another of my stupid questions has been registered and is being dealt with. She takes her time. Since her return, she confesses, she simply cannot think straight for lack of smoke.

Smoking has been an essential part of Hambling’s working life and public image. Her art mistress at Amberfield first taught her to smoke as a way of keeping the insects at bay while painting outside. In the process, Hambling found two things that came very naturally to her, the second being painting (‘a strange business – it seemed that I was good at something without having to try.’) Shortly after the Channel 4 debacle, Maggi became famous as a panellist on the art history quiz show Gallery (‘they assured me I could smoke as much as I liked’). There, she cut a rather boisterous, androgynous, figure. Television panel shows seem to have been rather more anarchic back then. ‘Yes,’ she agrees wistfully. ‘It was always vodka in my glass.’ In a review of the show, Peter Ackroyd noted with approval that ‘there are occasions when Miss Hambling seems to have two cigarettes on the go at once, the smoke swirling around and creating the atmosphere of a fish and chip shop.’ When she became the National Gallery’s first ‘artist in residence’ in 1980, special measures were taken: ‘as a precaution against my setting fire to the National Gallery with a cigarette, the walls, ceiling, and floor of my studio had been lined with tinfoil. I felt like an oven-ready meal.’

Now, Hambling is a reformed woman. She still drinks, thank god, though not much: half a can of Special Brew every evening. (‘Special Brew was my companion for a long while, as it is for lots of street people and serious drinkers everywhere’). In 2003, she produced a series of oil paintings in homage to the drink. On her Desert Island Discs, she reminds me, whereas some castaways opt for a bottle, or at most a case (‘wouldn’t last long, would it?’), Maggi elected to take as her luxury the entire contents of the wine-cellar of All Souls College, Oxford. She knows their stuff’s alright because of an evening she spent there which ended singing rounds from Show Boat with the presiding dons.

Hambling’s work ethic has, however, prevented her from becoming a seriously committed drinker. ‘Too much of a workaholic,’ she tells me. ‘I’m boring.’ And she is suspicious of the work-hard-play-hard image cultivated by certain artists – Francis Bacon, for instance (‘half the time I think he was pouring the champagne away’). Witnessing the antics of the Colony Room – ‘cirrhosis central’ – in Soho in the ’60s, she ‘just couldn’t understand how people could drink so much and get up and work the next day.’ Work is more fun than play, is her Wildean mantra. (‘For me painting was the most real thing there was, it was more real than life.’) Besides, a more pressing matter for Hambling when she first arrived in London as a 19-year-old art student in 1964, was that she was, to her decided embarrassment, still a virgin. She quickly arranged to be ‘deflowered by a black ballet dancer called Rodin… while his boyfriend appeared to be asleep on a bed in the corner of the room.’ Having got this out the way, she turned to the real business of sleeping with women. The first time she did, she recalls, ‘electric signals went through me… The shock of finally feeling so close to another human being was devastating. I woke up wanting to kill her so that she could never do the things we’d done with anyone else.’

Homosexuality is a minor tradition in Hambling’s family. Her stern, Telegraph-reading father, she suspects, was at least bisexual. Indeed, she considers it ‘little short of a miracle’ that she was conceived at all, nearly a decade after her two older siblings. Hambling ‘hates’ the word ‘lesbian’, however, and ‘gay’, we agree, has a certain undesirably euphemistic quality. ‘I always say “Dyke”!’ Hambling says. Yes, that’s much better, I agree. Whatever label it goes under, Hambling is committed to it. ‘What’s that lovely thing that Derek Jarman said? He said, it wasn’t that straight people were normal, merely rather common.’ She laughs. ‘He said some very good things.’ Jarman – and one could add Wilde, Bacon, Benjamin Britten, Stephen Fry, David Hockey – these people are icons, admired friends, and muses to Hambling, and frequent subjects in her work. Does she, come to think of it, actually admire any straight people? ‘Oh’ – the question is a disturbing one – ‘um, well, I suppose there must be someone… I can’t think at the moment.’

Having put Hambling on the spot like this, I suggest we talk instead about the theme of death in her art. She suggests that if things are going in that direction, we’d better have lunch first. We sit on the terrace of a place not far from Maggi’s house, an establishment where she is regarded with quiet fear by the staff. Locally, Hambling might be best known as the artist responsible for erecting a giant metal clam – Scallop, a tribute to Benjamin Britten – on the beach nearby in Aldeburgh. It, like others of Hambling’s public artworks, has been often defaced and generally the cause of much outrage. (‘It doesn’t look like Benjamin Britten at all!’ one local resident told The Telegraph incisively, when the sculpture appeared in 2003.) In 2020, Hambling’s A Tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft – a bronze and granite abstract sculpture, topped off with a female nude – unveiled in Newington Green, London, moved some to fury and still others to crowd-fund for its replacement. Hambling rolls her eyes at me across the table. ‘I never set out to be controversial, it just seems to happen… it surprises me every time.’

‘Where has humour gone?’ she demands jadedly. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Peggy, free to roam on her retractable lead, wander back into the restaurant and take a delicate piss on the terrace step; I tell Hambling and she looks around, amused: ‘I think you must be right… she does favour the indoors’). Anyway, Hambling continues, ‘they’ve become terribly conventional, people, haven’t they? ... The point is that a lot of stupid people thought [the statue] was of Mary Wollstonecraft, not for Mary Wollstonecraft. That was the stupid thing. And in newspapers they only reproduced the naked figure at the top, which is a tiny part of the sculpture. So that was very irritating… Those feminists objecting to the Mary Wollstonecraft statue… I mean, don’t they have bodies?’ The public has become too moralistic for Hambling’s liking, and it is hard to disagree completely.

She insists that she is not motivated by a desire to scandalise the public, nor, one senses, does she simply seek to appease their reliably philistine sensibilities. ‘I thought,’ she adds with mischief, ‘of writing in my will that Scallop was just the maquette, and I wanted it, when I was dead, to be made twice the size.’

Peggy, assisted complacently by Hambling, who holds on to the other end, has now used her lead to construct a lattice of tripwires between our table and the next (another lethal trap for the waitress). It reminds me that we haven’t talked about death enough yet. It has been a pervasive concern of Hambling’s work. Throughout her life a central artistic ritual has been to draw or paint people she loved when on their death bed, in their coffin, or afterwards from memory. Her studies of her father, or her former lover, the so-called ‘queen of Soho’, the wasted beauty Henrietta Moraes, are unforgettably moving.

Death, in Hambling’s opinion, is an entirely natural subject, the routine avoidance of which is one of the eccentricities of the British people. We take a walk with Peggy in the local graveyard. Though Maggi is straightforward in talking about her own near-death, one suspects that whatever deeper effect it has had on her is something to be expressed in future work, rather than words. ‘I didn’t have my life pass before my eyes or any of that stuff,’ she says, somewhat disappointedly. ‘It was so extraordinary, you know. It was just terribly unlike me to have a heart attack.’ Well perhaps she shouldn’t try it again. ‘Exactly.’

JOHN MAIER reads Philosophy full-time at Balliol College; though in another, more literal, sense he doesn't.

Art by Izzy Fergusson


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