Gallery: Laughing with Good Time George

George Melly and Maggi Hambling were best pals and after his death in 2007 Maggi saw no reason for the relationship to change.

Andrew Clarke

George Melly and Maggi Hambling were best pals and after his death in 2007 Maggi saw no reason for the relationship to change. She has painted a vibrant celebration of George's spirit for a new exhibition in his home town of Liverpool. She took Arts Editor Andrew Clarke on a guided tour of her new series of portraits embracing life, death and the beyond.

George Melly was not only a colourful character and one of the greatest names in jazz but also a connoisseur of the finer in life and one of Maggi Hambling's greatest and certainly most vocal fans.

He was a modern day Falstaff - a larger than life figure with a love of fine food, art and music. He loved to enjoy himself and he loved to entertain those around him.

One of those he used to entertain was Maggi Hambling - they were firm friends for 25 years - having forged a fast friendship in the artificial world of a television studio when they were recording the television quiz show Gallery for Channel Four.

Melly called her Maggi “Coffin” Hambling because her series of deathbed portraits of her mother, father, her muse Henrietta Moraes and her mentor Cedric Morris.

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Now Maggi has repaid the compliment by creating an exhibition of George Melly portraits entitled George Always which captures George in hearty life, on his deathbed and as a translucent ghost enjoying the very best of the afterlife.

Speaking in her studio as the paintings were being packaged up for transportation to the gallery, it is clear that George Melly's death has left a huge hole in her life - the fact that she talks about him in the present tense may suggest that perhaps she hasn't quite yet come to terms with his departure.

Of course, George Melly is still very much with her - in front of her every day on canvas and in her ability to conjure up the dead - at least in paint.

Maggi's celebration of George Melly, entitled suitably enough, George Always, is a vibrant collection - a joyous evocation of a man who lived life to the full - a man who refused to be cowed by society's expectations and eventually by the rigours of dementia and death.

He was Good-Time George - libertarian, cultural commentator and jazz man. But, beyond that he was Maggi Hambling's friend - it was a real friendship, a friendship that existed in private and was not for show. He would turn up at Maggi's Suffolk home for the weekend and hold court in Maggi's kitchen while dinner was being prepared - seemingly oblivious to the activity around him. Ancedote, followed anecdote, punctuated by the odd piece of forthright opinion relating to some cultural outrage which had captured his attention.

As Maggi told the story: “Suddenly, George announced that he was going to help. Everyone practically fainted. The idea of George helping. Up until then, we had all had to squeeze round him as we were making the dinner. I said: 'Oh, what are you going to do?' He gathered up his Irish whiskey and cigarette and said: 'I think I shall go and sit at the other end of the table.'” Maggi's lets out a huge laugh - “That was his idea of helping.”

Maggi and George first met in 1980 at a mutual friend's party. “We were at this garden party. Both of us had had quite a bit to drink and we were lying on one of the paths. Someone encouraged us to meet one another, so we sort of wriggled along - like worms I said, George said like snakes. I knew of him because he had written something in The Times about me being the first artist in residence at the National Gallery and had got something wrong. I instantly went onto the attack. He told me afterwards that he instantly liked me because there was no shilly shallying about, I had instantly zeroed in on what he had done wrong, so we took to each other right away.

“However, we really became friends when we did the Channel Four quiz show Gallery together. Peter Atwell, a television critic at the time wrote a very funny piece which said: 'George gives you marks just for sitting there' - the point was that I never got anything right. George did look kindly upon me and tried to help me but it didn't do much good.”

She said that she left George Melly high and dry when she turned up one week wearing a false moustache. “I was sitting there wearing this moustache, George was trying to keep order and he had this director, a man of no imagination whatsoever, yelling into his earpiece telling him to get me to take the moustache off. He was saying that I was undermining the serious, educational content of the show. Fortunately I was saved by Naomi Sargent from Channel Four who happened to be visiting the set that day. She said: 'She is doing exactly the right thing. Maggi shouldn't be the only woman on this show. She is making a feminist point.' I wasn't at all. I always wondered what I would look like in a moustache. It was just a little visual anarchy because if I said anything risqu� it inevitably would be cut out. But you couldn't cut out the moustache - it was visual. And the cigarette was always there in those days and there was vodka in my glass not water.”

She said that despite her then fledgling friendship with George Melly, he wasn't responsible for getting her on the programme. In fact he wasn't involved in the first pilot at all.

“Granada Television approached me because I had been the first artist in residence at The National Gallery, they assumed I knew a lot about different artists and would be good in an art quiz. The original pilot was hosted by Bamber Gasgoine and it was all pretty fast, like starter for ten and press the buzzer, which was all pretty frightful.”

Then following week, she was phoned by rival Harlech Television and offered a role in a new art quiz they were planning. “I thought they were pulling my leg. I told them about the other pilot I had done the week before and they said, 'We know about the other one, but come to Bristol it will be better - you can smoke, you can drink and George Melly is going to be in the chair. I went off to Bristol, it was huge fun with George and fortunately Channel Four decided to use the George Melly/Harlech version of the programme rather than the staid Bamber Gasgoine programme.

“We had more fun with George and funnily enough it was more respectful of the paintings. In Manchester with Bamber they treated these great works like playing cards. Over the course of those programmes George and I really became close friends. We found each other life-enhancing - it's a terrible phrase but it's really the only way to describe it.

“If I was at a party or some art function and George turned up I immediately felt better. The other thing I liked about him was that he was completely unshockable. You could phone him up and confess to having murdered your mother - or some other dreadful thing - and he would be terribly practical and very funny. “Now Maggi what you need to do is… and like Oscar Wilde he had this wonderful knack of slicing right through anything even vaguely pompous or pretentious.”

She said that despite his devil may care attitude he was in fact a very perceptive appreciator of art. He was a regular visitor to Maggi's studio and was frequently granted access to works in progress - something Maggi is usually very loath to do. “He spoke very perceptively about my work, indeed often wrote very perceptive pieces about my work - probably more than anybody else, he was a great champion of it.

“We often had dinner together, I would occasionally go and see him sing and every Christmas I would join him at Ronnie Scott's, so we were good friends. I loved the fact that he was completely incapable of working anything technological. I am bad enough but George was hopeless.

“When he was given a mobile telephone to take on tour with him, he had someone switch it to vibrate because he was deaf and then confounded everyone by never answering it. He got back after three weeks and was accused of not answering the telephone. George wasn't having this. He said: 'I've got it here, the bloody thing doesn't work' and he pulled out from his pocket, the remote control for the television.”

She said that she sort to capture the spirit of George Melly as well the physical resemblance. “I painted him with his eye patch - which he didn't need to wear but he loved the piratical image. Also the composition of the paintings was very deliberate. On several his stomach goes out of the picture and you have to imagine it spilling out over the frame.

“The celebration of George's stomach is very important - it was the epitome of his being.” She said when painting George as a ghost - as opposed to being on his death bed - she took great delight in returning him to his gloriously corpulent glory.

She said that many of pictures developed as she worked on them on the canvas - with her adding different elements and various pieces of incidental detail as she worked. “There are fish in a couple of the pictures because he was a mad keen fisherman - he could never persuade me to come along but he loved it. It was part of who he was.”

She said that she was taken aback by the huge sense of loss she feels now that George has died. “I had no idea that George would leave such a huge crater in my life, not merely a hole.” But, painting helps. It helps keep her in contact with her friend.

“George often makes a grand appearance in my dreams. I still hear him laugh, tell jokes and sing - from wherever he may be…”

She said that painting the dead, as George used to tease her about helps her sort out her feelings and define that moment between life and death.

“The first person I painted dead was Frances Rose, the old lady who lived next door to me in Battersea. I was with her when she died. She was in the Clapham Women's Hospital and I was sitting there holding her hand and after about a hour and a half, a nurse came along and said: 'There's no point you sitting their any longer she's gone.' I was totally unaware at what moment Frances Rose had gone. She was lying there, she was smiling ... afterwards I couldn't get that experience out of my head. A neighbour of mine suggested that I should do a painting from memory of her dying and I found that was a great help.

“That was the early/ mid-70s, then came the death of Cedric Morris, I was with him in Ipswich Hospital and I stopped my paintings of Max Wall to paint Cedric. Then came my drawings of my mother in her coffin, then my father I did from life, from death and then from memory. Henrietta was the same and now George, so there is a precedent but I honestly didn't plan all these paintings of George, I just didn't realise how much I would miss him.”

George Always opens this weekend at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and runs until May 31.