I confess that I first came across Maggi Hambling in the 1980s as a team captain in a short-lived modern art TV quiz show called ‘Gallery’. Fellow panelists, including George Melly and Frank Whitford, looked very inebriated and everyone behaved quite outrageously. Answering the questions was clearly secondary. In one episode Hambling wore a moustache throughout, in another she appeared in full length gold lame. I had known her name before then, but it was her appearances on the quiz show which made me go and look at her work. Just to see if she was serious.
Of course, she was and is. I went again to see her work last week, to the exhibition ‘Touch: works on paper‘ at the British Museum. It’s a smallish exhibition at the back of the museum complex in Prints and Drawings but it’s worth a visit and it’s FREE to enter. Hambling is quoted as saying “Eye and hand attempt to discover and produce those precise marks which recreate what the heart feels. The challenge is to touch the subject, with all the desire of a lover.”
There are drawings from her student years at Ipswich School of Art up until the present day. Hambling first became known for her portraits and there are lots of portrait sketches in the exhibition, including one from the famous series of Max Wall the clown and comedian. There are some from the Henrietta sketchbooks – Henrietta Moraes, bohemian queen of Soho who was painted by both Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, was drawn on many occasions by Hambling during the last year of Moraes’ life. These are poignant and sad as well as being beautiful.
Hambling seems to be drawn to those nearing their end in order, in turn, to draw them. As well as Henrietta there are a series of moving sketches of her own father as he approaches death.
But she draws the living and vital too. Witness the triptych capturing ‘Stephen Falling Asleep’ –
Stephen Fry gradually dozing as he sits for a portrait.
It’s not all portraits. There are drawings of water, waves and waterfalls, sketches for a series of large paintings inspired by her experience of huge waves crashing against the seawall of Southwold in Suffolk, the county of her birth. These were the subject of an exhibition – Walls of Water – at the National Gallery in 2015. I’m ashamed to say that I missed it.
All exhibits bar one are in monochrome, thought they are in different media include etching, charcoal and monotype. The exhibition is accompanied by a book, ‘Maggie Hambling; Touch‘ by Jennifer Ramkalawon (£35, Lund Humphries Publishing, 2016 ). It ends on 29th January 2017.
By the way, that quiz show, ‘Gallery’ has, I discovered while researching for this article, acquired something of a cult status. Not surprising, I suppose, as its participants were clearly having an amazingly good time while discussing something which they all loved.