Maggi celebrates 60th birthday in style

Suffolk's most vibrant artist Maggi Hambling is celebrating her 60th birthday with not only a new London exhibition but a major new book detailing her career so far.

By Andrew Clarke

Suffolk's most vibrant artist Maggi Hambling is celebrating her 60th birthday with not only a new London exhibition but a major new book detailing her career so far. In the first of a two-part interview, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Maggi about life, cars and why a retrospective doesn't mean she's reached the end of the road.

Maggi Hambling is feeling very happy at the moment. Life is busy, she has a new exhibition opening in London and is the subject of a major new book - plus the fact that she is now the proud owner of a vintage Bentley.

The car sits gleaming and spotless in her driveway and is the immediate topic of conversation upon my arrival. “Do you like the wheels darling?” she asks as she pops a nicotine tablet into her plastic cigarette.

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It turns out that Maggi is quite a female Jeremy Clarkson on the quiet and she talks enthusiastically about her new purchase. “It is a 1979 Bentley T2, of which 1700 were made. She's Georgian silver with dark blue leather and walnut interior with sheep skin. I have christened her Bent - surprise, surprise - and I love her to bits,” she says with a throaty laugh.

“As you know I am all about energy, the paintings are all about energy and I prefer action, action, action, doings things and the Bentley is good for me because it slows me down and forces me to drive at a more stately pace.”

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She said that it was important that the car was a vintage model because of the way that fashion seems to be turning all cars into one basic model. She said: “Why it has to be an older Bentley rather than a newer Bentley is because it has real chrome as opposed to the plastic and the marvellous shape of an older Bentley. I personally am not bananas about the new continental - old continental fine but new continental… the trouble is all cars have come to look the same. You can hardly tell a Porsche from a Saab these days. One used to be able to tell a Saab or even a Peugeot just from the look of it. Now they all look the same. What is the point?”

Maggi confesses however, the purchase of the Bentley was to help her overcome the trauma of being 60 - an age which held for her a certain dread.

“For my 40th I had a big party so the trauma of being 40 was overlaid by a lot of liquid and dancing. George Melly came along and sang some songs that have never actually been recorded …if you see what I mean. Too blue for recording,” Maggi lets rip another throaty laugh, “so that was more of a celebration.

“I didn't take any notice of being 50 - I am hopeless at arithmetic but even I know that 50 is halfway to 100 so you are halfway towards something - if you are optimistic,” she pauses briefly to collect her thoughts, “But 60 is definitely in the second half of your life and that provided great problems for me. So there was no party. I didn't want any presents. I simply came to Suffolk and painted just as usual - the sea - just as if nothing had happened. And then having lusted after a Bentley for a very long time, I finally did it and bought one as a birthday present to myself.”

Maggi's 60th birthday has also provided the art world with a wonderful excuse to give Maggi another much valued present - a major retrospective of her work in book form.

Maggi is naturally very enthusiastic about the book because this is the first time that she has had the opportunity to gather together work from all stages of her career. “I was approached by the publisher Hugh Tempest-Radford who felt keenly that the moment had come for there to be a monograph of my work and then other publishers got excited and it was a rather gratifying moment. My gallery, Marlborough, and I chose Hugh because he makes very beautiful books including the Illustrated Catalogue of the Wallace Collection, the Illustrated Catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery - these big weighty art books - which make mine seem a fairly slender volume.”

She said that because her life directly informs her artwork, the book also serves as an autobiography. Maggi said that it was almost pre-ordained that she would become an artist. “It was meant to be.” Although she wasn't born into an artistic family as such, it was a family with considerable artistic leanings. Her mother and father who lived in Hadleigh were keen performers in the local amateur dramatic society and her father, Harry, who worked as a senior bank official for Barclays, later in life was an accomplished artist himself. Her mother, Marjorie, was a local school teacher.

Maggi had her brush with the world of art at the age of 14 when during an art exam at Amberfield School she created an A grade painting in ten minutes flat.

“I was in the art exam and hadn't done anything. I was messing around, flicking paint at other students. I was madly in love with the teacher who was invigilating the exam at the time, and then I realised that the time was 3.20 and the exam was finishing at 3.30 and I quickly dashed off this painting and to my amazement I came top. It was at this point that I started taking art seriously.”

At the age of 15 she made her first important contacts within the art world when she bravely took several of her paintings to Benton End, the artists' house, just outside Hadleigh, the home of Sir Cedric Morris and Lett Haines, who became her mentors.

“Lett gave me the best advice I have ever been given and I still cling to it to this day. 'Make art your best friend, so you can come to it in any mood, at any time of day.' It has been the guiding principal of my life.”

Sir Cedric Morris and Lett Haines were both avant garde artists who made their names in the 1920s and 30s and ran an open-house artists school in Hadleigh. Lett, in particular, took Maggi under his wing and channelled her creative energies and taught her discipline.

They also taught her to make up her own mind about her work and to handle criticism. On that very first meeting when she laid out her work before the pair of them in the dining room of Benton End, Cedric said that she should simplify one area of a painting while Lett said that she should make it more detailed.

She said no-one likes criticism but well-argued criticism helps an artist examine their own work. “I think it helps you make your own decisions - which is very important. If two people are making entirely opposite criticisms, where are you? You have to make your own mind up. But I am sure if someone has said something really meaningful, really helpful, actually you are only hearing something that was already inside you. They are only echoing what you already knew, even though perhaps you couldn't have articulated it yourself.

“It's very important how you handle criticism. I like that Oscar Wilde quote that: “When the critics are divided then the artist is at one with himself”. There is a delicate balance between the artist having a backbone of steel and still being vulnerable enough to respond to what happens to you in life. You have to maintain a healthy attitude to criticism. You have to guard against the Donald Woolfit response. There is that wonderful story of Donald Woolfit who, when he read a good review, he would say: “Ah, written by an intelligent person,” if he got a bad one he'd say: “written by one of my enemies.” You have to harden yourself up - particularly when you think of the graffiti on Scallop - why not make a little joke? It makes people laugh.

“People can be amazingly inspirational. You are not in charge of when something exciting is going to happen. In my case I am very lucky because I can be in a studio everyday, so the muse can arrive and something can happen. But there are long periods when bugger all happens. But the thing is to be there ready for when she does.”

Another of Maggi's early mentors was the artist Yvonne Drewry who taught her during her time at Amberfield School and who also introduced her to the joys of smoking while on a summertime landscape painting trip to Kirton.

“My first oil painting and my first cigarette were in some fields near Kirton. My art teacher Yvonne Drewry had taken me out there to learn how to use oil paint. Later on in the day, she wandered across the fields to see how I was doing. It was very hot and the insects were sticking to the palette, the brushes and the painting. I said to her: What am I going to do? And she told me: 'There's only one thing you can do, have a cigarette.”

For Maggi art and cigarettes have been inextricably linked ever since - and remain so - even now she has given up.

Maggi Hambling will be signing copies of her new book at Crisps Bookshop in Saxmundham between 11-1pm on Saturday January 28. The book Maggi Hambling: The Works with Andrew Lambirth is available from today until the signing at a pre-publication price of £30.

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