Maggi’s big wave makes a splash in the landscape
The wave seems to emerge from the grassy hill and rears up, curling round itself, almost engulfing the onlooker. The sun light catches the leading edge, just as the surface tension on the water is about to shatter and the whole mass will collapse down on the hapless viewer who has strayed too close to this powerful, elemental force of nature.
Only the wave stays still. The arch, the wall of water, has so much power, so much implied movement that you are sure it will sweep you off your feet and then suck you down into the undertow. Except this wave refuses to break. It looks imposing. It looks overwhelming. It looks at home in this grassy, tree-lined landscape – far away from the shingle and the beach. This wave is the latest expression of Maggi Hambling’s artistic exploration of this most evocative and powerful feature of our world.
For Maggi, it’s the sea’s endless variety of moods which continues to fascinate her. It’s the explosive nature which she most frequently captures on canvas – yet the sea can be calm, tranquil, seductive, alluring, difficult and frequently deceptive. On occasions, you can catch a glimpse of things in her crashing, heaving waves which are not there. Or maybe you are adding your own subconscious visual contribution to the mass of foaming water and flecks of sea spray.
As Maggi captures the sea early in the morning or late in the evening, the light – that warm, orange glow that frequently illuminates her horizons – can play strange tricks when transferred to canvas. The light caught in that so-called magic hour, between darkness and dawn and then again between daylight and dusk, enhances the shapes and rich colours to be found within the seething waters.
The vitality of Maggi’s paintings have now taken on a different form – sculpture.
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Maggi has a long history with sculpture: Scallop on Aldeburgh beach is her most famous work along with the Oscar Wilde statue in St Martin-in-the Fields, now she is turning her attention to realising the power of the sea in 3-D.
Always up for a challenge, Maggi has opted to start big. Her first fully realised wave sculpture is a huge bronze rising wave which has been produced for a private collector and is located in the grounds of his home.
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The creation of the wave sculpture is part of a saga which has been rolling on for the past two years. The sculpture was first conceived as a piece of public art for Saffron Walden.
“I was approached by a group called the Saffron Walden Initiative who wanted a piece of sculpture for a square of grass next to the church. They came to my studio, loved the maquette and agreed that it would be good to have this surge of energy coming out of the ground next to the church, where a Henry Moore had been until it was recently removed.
“Then they went to the newly elected Tory council who sent a wonderful letter stating the many reasons why they did not want my wave.
“The first reason was that Maggi Hambling was not born in Saffron Walden.
“The second was that if funds were given to the sculpture there wouldn’t be enough for their social and sports centre.
“The next reason, which made me laugh, was that they didn’t much like the look of it. And the fourth reason was the best of all. They knew that it wouldn’t be an original work of art because they happened to know that I had painted some waves already,” Maggi explodes into laughter.
“That’s like saying to Picasso, ‘Oh you can’t paint us a nude because you’ve done one before.’ That whole letter was straight out of Private Eye.”
She said that shortly after the collapse of the Saffron Walden project the unnamed collector visited Maggi in her studio, loved the maquette of the rising wave and commissioned her to create it. “That is why The Rising Wave rises out of the mound, on the rising piece of land in the middle of the Suffolk countryside rather than outside a church in Saffron Walden.”
Maggi said that the effect of the wave rising up out of ground was very much the effect she wanted to achieve. She said it made it at one with the landscape, in the same way that Scallop is part of the beach at Aldeburgh because it rises up out of the shingle.
“I chose the spot for it very carefully because there is a rising field, which leads to a rising mound and now on top of that is a rising wave.”
She said that people have told her that from a distance the wave looks quite threatening but up close it embraces you. The bronze sculpture looks overwhelming up close. It’s 11 feet high, 15 feet long and seven feet deep.
Once the commission was received it took seven months for the sculpting and casting process to be completed.
“The bronze was poured on my birthday last October. It has taken a while but it is my first big bronze wave sculpture, so it is very exciting. Sculpture always involves a lot of people. I always work with Chris Nash at Arch Bronze Foundry, who did my Oscar Wilde statue.”
She says, with a big throaty laugh, that the stress of creating and siting the wave sculpture was responsible for her smoking again. “The nerves...I can’t tell you, as this big JCB, holding this massive bronze sculpture, lowered it into a hole in the ground. The stress was enough to drive me back to my fags. It was nerve-wracking.”
She said that Pegg’s of Aldeburgh, who built Scallop, were called in to provide the subterranean steel foundations which keeps the sculpture upright.
Inspired by the success of The Rising Wave, Maggi has created a series of smaller, no less powerful, bronze sculptures for a new exhibition which is currently on show at Marlborough Fine Art gallery in London.
Along with the wave sculptures, she has created a series of bronze reliefs, which are so textured that the viewer has an overwhelming urge just to run their hands over them as they take them in. Touch becomes part of the experience.
This is very much in keeping with Maggi’s view of the whole experience of creating these works.
“I felt I needed to create something with my hands. I wanted to physically to create the waves, draw with my hands if you like. As you know, the whole thing starts out as cardboard, you add plaster and you only have a few minutes to work with the material before it starts to set. So you only have a few minutes to get it right. It mirrors the way I paint. I work in quick bursts of frantic activity and then I stop. I consider what I am going to do next, so this brief window when the plaster is useable allows me to work in exactly the same way.”
She said that working in three dimensions is always a challenge because you have to consider the work and how it will be viewed from all angles.
“After years of trying to make the waves break on the canvas with paint, now I’m trying to do it in solid bronze, which is mad and ridiculous because water is liquid and these are solid but it is still about that moment, when the wave is rearing and is about to crash.
“It’s anticipating the moment when the wave breaks. It’s the same in the sculptures as it is in the paintings.”
She said that sculpture is a challenge not only because it requires working in three dimensions but also because it involves other people in what is a highly personal, and usually private act of creation. “It’s complicated, it’s labour intensive and it involves other people and it has to be people you trust. I have used Chris at Arch Bronze for years. The same with the Pegg’s at Aldeburgh. They know me and they know what I want but you have to trust them.”
The bronze sculptures are returned to Maggi’s studio for her to do the patinating - adding the necessary colours to finish off the look of the sculpture. “It’s not quick. And yet, here I am trying to capture, in bronze, this brief moment of something liquid, which appears to be solid, just before it dissolves and becomes liquid again. That is the nature of a wave and here I am working in solid metal.”
Maggi also delights in fortunate accidents. In one of her rolling waves, the casting process has left the inside of the wave funnel with a resplendent rainbow effect which echoes the colours she uses in her paintings. She couldn’t be more pleased with the happy accident and interprets this as a good omen for the current exhibition.
In a similar fashion she has kept the blackening effect created during the pouring process to suggest nighttime on a couple of pieces. “I went to the foundry and found this sculpture of a rolling wave lying in the yard, cooling, having been made ready for me. I saw that it was black, having been heated to a very high temperature and I suddenly thought why does it always have to be the day time? So I decided to keep the black and I came up with a series of night sculptures.”
She said that it was important that she always had a challenge.
In addition to this new series of sculptures, Maggi continues to paint everyday. A series of new Cormorant paintings were on display at the recent Alde Valley Spring Festival and she has paintings and etchings on show alongside her sculptures at Marlborough.
If that wasn’t enough she has just opened an exhibition of her recent work at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The exhibition entitled The Wave is a collection of some of her large-scale paintings of the North Sea in all its rampaging glory.
Bronze reliefs, sculpture - both large and small, paintings, etchings, two exhibitions happening at once, is there a danger that Maggi is overdoing it? She laughs at the idea: “People don’t realise that the stress of it all may kill me but there we are. As you know, I have to work. I have no control over it.”
The Wave is at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in the Mellon Gallery until August 8. Maggi Hambling: New Sea Sculpture, Paintings and Etchings is on display at Marlborough Fine Art, Albemarle Street, London, until June 5.