Maggi Hambling, contemporary artist
100 Leading Ladies by Nancy Honey: photography is the medium for an inspiring snapshot of high-flying women over 55 in Britain
Contemporary artist Maggi Hambling is one of the 100 Leading Ladies captured in a new collection of portraits and interviews with some of Britain’s most high-profile women, all of them over 55, published yesterday. With pictures by Nancy Honey and words by Hattie Garlick, the book paints an encouraging portrait of senior women succeeding in fields from culture and the arts to politics, law and business – and now 13 of the photographs have been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery.
In an extract from the book, Hambling looks back on her journey to becoming one of our most distinguished artists (not to mention ‘the most difficult woman in London’)
Born 1945, Suffolk
When my mother came back from the hospital, she apologised to my nine-year-old brother that I was a girl. He had so badly wanted a brother that he took no notice at all of the fact that I wasn’t and brought me up as one. He taught me carpentry, how to wring chickens' necks and all that useful stuff.
I was once given a doll and we immediately sawed its head off in the tool shed. I was never given another.
I had to train my parents into who I was. My mother said I was the most obstinate child she’d ever come across and, since she was a teacher, she’d met a lot.
The great thing is to be yourself. If you’re really being yourself, you’re not going to be told by anyone else who you are or what you are or what you should do.
It wasn’t till I was fourteen that art really grabbed me by the short and curlies. There was an art exam at school and I did nothing but flick paint at the teacher and generally draw attention to myself because the biology mistress was in charge, and I was deeply in love with her. Then I saw the clock, realised I only had ten minutes before I had to hand in a painting, so I did one. When the results came out, three weeks later, I was top of art.
It was a total surprise to me. I thought, this is a very odd business, you don’t have to try and you’re good at it. So I decided to take it seriously.
I found out who I really was through my work. There were certain teachers at Camberwell art school in the ‘60s, for example, whose work I despised and I simply instructed them not to teach me for the three years I was there. You have to follow your own instincts.
I’ve lived my life like that. I was sitting in the Club at The Ivy one night and the sculptor Barry Flanagan came in, looked across the room and said, “Oh my God, there’s the most difficult woman in London.” Then he kissed me.
I have to put mascara on, that’s my war paint. It’s a defence. I’m really a tiny, shy little thing. I like to choose who eats me up rather than other people choosing to do it to me.
I’m most alive when I’m in my studio working. The real me is there and the rest is showbiz. Showbiz is exactly the opposite of being alone in the studio, trying to make something.
All artists should be riddled with self-doubt. I think there’s something wrong with a creative person if they’re not plagued by it more or less the whole time.
My art is a filter between me and life. Artists do have to stand back to make their response to what’s around them, whether it’s people or the sea or anything else.
I’ve always been quite envious of people who’ve just lived, like Henrietta Moraes who became my Muse. She just lived; she was an artist of life.
“You must make your work your best friend, so that you can go to it whatever you’re feeling – whether that’s bored, happy, randy, whatever. And have a conversation with your work.” When I was sixteen and had begun to take art seriously, Lett-Haines, who was my mentor, told me that. And that is how I’ve lived my life.
I’m very boring; I hate even the idea of going on holiday. If I don’t work even for one day I go pottier than I am already.
You have to work a great many hours for one good hour. I get up early every day to work, five or six o’clock in the morning till about two o’clock in the afternoon. It’s what I do every day and it’s what I am, who I am.
Art is quite a masochistic business, really. But the feeling when things go right is unlike any other. You learn to accept that there are good days and bad days. Sometimes I can spend six months on a painting and have to destroy it, and that is pretty depressing. But it has to be done so that that same painting can possibly happen in an hour and a half, probably the next day. It wouldn’t happen if I hadn’t been through all the rubbish first.
My philosophy of life is that I am deeply, deeply serious about my work and for the rest I like to have a few laughs
For more on 100 Leading Ladies, visit the website here