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Maggi Hambling creates a storm with her Wall of Water paintings

PUBLISHED: 14:33 01 December 2014 | UPDATED: 14:33 01 December 2014

Wall of Water Amy Winehouse  - part of Maggi Hambling's  new exhibition at The National Gallery

Wall of Water Amy Winehouse - part of Maggi Hambling's new exhibition at The National Gallery

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For more than a decade Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling has been exploring Suffolk’s relationship with the sea.

Wall of Water11  - part of Maggi Hambling's  new exhibition at The National GalleryWall of Water11 - part of Maggi Hambling's new exhibition at The National Gallery

Her tempestuous sea paintings have been created as a result of her early morning walks along the shingle and cliff tops between Aldeburgh and Southwold. It is her quiet time. Her time to be alone with her thoughts and to marvel at the ever-changing nature of the sea as waves continue to chew away at our coastline or smash against our protective concrete walls.

Having displayed her paintings at The Hermitage in St Petersberg last year, Maggi is, this week, unveiling a new series of six foot paintings, entitled Walls of Water, at The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Maggi gave me a sneak preview of the eight paintings in her north Suffolk studio along with a ninth, slightly smaller painting, dedicated to the singer Amy Winehouse. “These pictures have never been seen before. They are entirely new. This is my first London exhibition for four years.”

She said that she had recently held large scale exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Musuem in Cambridge and at Salford Quays as part of a Lowry landscape retrospective as well as last year’s Hermitage show but she hadn’t had a large London show for the best part of a decade.

Portrait of Maggi Hambling in her studioPortrait of Maggi Hambling in her studio

“I started work on them towards the end of 2010. They were inspired by alarmingly, unnervingly high waves crashing against the sea wall at Southwold. There was nature pounding at our defences. It was as if it was dissolving the seawall. It was nature at its most primeval attacking this quiet Suffolk community.

“That’s why they were called Wall of Water because they are quite literally a terrifying wall of water coming towards you and there’s the double meaning that they are created when they strike this physical concrete wall – it’s nature coming into conflict with us.”

She said that because she hadn’t shown in London for so long, she wanted to make a statement with the new show. “I have been working away here in Suffolk since then, putting together a show which explains and demonstrates what I have been doing.

“What I am so excited about this show is that I feel so many things have come together. They combine influences from the sunrise paintings of the 80s, the sea paintings which began in 2002 and the laugh paintings of the 1990s and all these various influences have come together in these Walls of Water paintings.

Detail from Wall of Water 2 - part of Maggi Hambling's  new exhibition at The National GalleryDetail from Wall of Water 2 - part of Maggi Hambling's new exhibition at The National Gallery

“And with my sea paintings you can see all sorts of things in them. People see things in them and ask: ‘Did you mean to put so and so in there?’ I love it that people see all sorts of things in the water. Of course it’s all sub-conscious. I paint what I see and what I feel.”

Maggi said that the purpose of these works was to capture the power of the sea as the waves were forced upwards in what appears to be an explosion of water.

“I am still looking to capture the energy of the sea but in a new way.”

From a viewer’s perspective, although these vast canvases contain a still image, the movement Maggi has generated with the oil paint has produced a painting that appears to be animated. Looking at the work you definitely get a sense of an explosion of water rocketing upwards and outwards.

Wall of Water monotype  - part of Maggi Hambling's  new exhibition at The National GalleryWall of Water monotype - part of Maggi Hambling's new exhibition at The National Gallery

You can almost feel the spray flying out of the painting as the water washes over the concrete wall depicted at the foot of the canvas and washing out over the studio floor.

Movement, activity, and colour combine to make these paintings come alive. It is as if you are also out in that storm, witnessing the elemental power that nature can summon up when she wishes.

“I believe that you can make things move in oils in ways that you can’t do in photography. Photography is a moment in time but a painting captures something which you can feel yourself getting caught up in.”

She added that a selection of her Sea mono-prints will also be shown at The National Gallery during the exhibition but in a different space.

Maggi Hambling with one of her large Wall of Water paintings, which forms parts of her new exhibition at The National GalleryMaggi Hambling with one of her large Wall of Water paintings, which forms parts of her new exhibition at The National Gallery

Although the scale and ambition of these paintings is vast, the size of the canvases make little difference to Maggi’s approach. “Whatever the size of the painting I am always trying to capture the energy and the power of the water, the canvas is three inches by four or six feet by seven feet. I chose to make these paintings big because the waves themselves were shatteringly enormous – far higher than me. They were shatteringly beautiful and terrifying at the same moment.”

The energy displayed in Maggi’s paintings is incredible. I am intrigued to know whether they are created in bursts of creative inspiration or whether they are built up in a meticulous fashion over a period of weeks and months. Maggi’s reply is swift and to the point. “All the paint goes on quickly but I am always asked how long does a paitning take and I can never answer because they are all different.”

She points at one hung on the studio wall: “That one took three or four months,” she then turns to indicate one stacked up in a 
corner awaiting collection. “Whereas that one was far, far quicker. But, it is irrelevant in the end because as long as the one that took three months has the same energy as the one that took three days then you can’t tell them apart.

“It’s all about making a visual moment as intense as I can. Obviously, you have to be completely in the moment when you paint and if you are not then you have got to get rid of it. It’s a waste of time.

Detail of Wall of Water 12 - part of Maggi Hambling's  new exhibition at The National GalleryDetail of Wall of Water 12 - part of Maggi Hambling's new exhibition at The National Gallery

“A painting can stand around and not be touched for three weeks and then, suddenly, after living with it, dreaming about it, you return to it, make one mark and you know it’s finished.

“It’s all very mysterious and unaccountable. You just know it’s not finished until it is,” she pauses, deep in thought, smoking her cigarette before adding: “And that one mark. It’s important. It might be a successful mark but it might be a disaster and ruin everything.”

She said that one of the joys about working on such a scale was the fact that the paintings should work equally well when viewed from a distance and close up. “I am doing things which I can only do in oil paint, so I am keen for people to study them close up and view them from a distance.”

Certainly you feel at times as if the water is seeping from the painting out onto the floor. At the foot of each painting there is a grey line or border which represents the sea wall but Maggi has allowed a river of drips and trails of paint to flow over that line. So while the almost volcanic activity of the water in the majority of the canvas is threatening to cover you in spray, at the bottom water is leaking out of the canvas onto the floor.

Detail of Wall of Water 13  - part of Maggi Hambling's  new exhibition at The National GalleryDetail of Wall of Water 13 - part of Maggi Hambling's new exhibition at The National Gallery

She said that the additional painting, Amy Winehouse, is also a Sea Painting but was inspired by news of Amy’s death.

“I was very moved when Amy Winehouse died. I was working on the Walls of Water at the time and I made that particular painting for her. So it fits into the show.

“I am thrilled to be showing at The National Gallery because it’s all paint and the beauty of a good painting is that it works when viewed from miles away and close up.”

On a personal note she said that she is delighted that Anthony Gormley had chosen Aldeburgh to be the 
home of his latest work entitled Land. He will be creating five human figures to mark the 50th anniversary of The Landmark Trust. 
One of those figures will be placed on top of the Martello Tower in Aldeburgh at the opposite end of the beach from Maggi’s sculpture, Scallop.

“I am very pleased that Aldeburgh is to be guarded by art at both ends,” she added with a mischievous chuckle.

Maggi Hambling: Walls of Water exhibition is on show in Room 1 at The National Gallery, London, until February 15, 2015.

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