As the train pulls into Saxmundham the lady to my right is staring away from me, with the sort of studied indifference usually seen around bank card PINs. It hasn’t been an easy journey for her.
For the first 20 minutes I had open in front of me an art book showing a disturbingly sexy painting of a large bull mounting a girl with the head of a cow. Then I’d looked at photos of the artist, Maggi Hambling: Maggi in fishnets, Maggi in drag, Maggi in an exceptionally tight swimming costume with bow tie and Liza Minnelli wig.
I imagine my prim friend looking out of the window as the train moves off. If she is, she’ll know exactly which of the waiting people I’m here to meet.
There on other side off the tracks is Maggi. Hair like Simon Rattle (she prefers Beethoven), mascara like Dusty Springfield, smoking a fag and leaning on the hood of a two-tone Chrysler.
There’s Maggi, instantly recognisable at any distance and very familiar to me because I attend an art class she gives in London. I’ve been taught by her for five years and I’ve never learnt more from anyone in my adult life, save Stuart Reid, former deputy editor of The Spectator. But Maggi’s still a mystery — or at least a collection of contradictions.
She’s famously outspoken and unfazed. After a stint as the first artist in residence at the National Gallery in 1980, she became a regular on Gallery, the TV art quiz. She had the chutzpah to appear wearing a very realistic moustache and Peter Ackroyd called her ‘the campest thing on television’ — a great accolade. But she’s also shy. ‘Are you really shy?’ I ask her later that day. ‘Of course I’m fucking shy!’ she barks.
Maggi’s a natural troop leader. In class we’re known by our surnames, and as she tours the room, inspecting our efforts, I sometimes have the strong impression she’s slapping a whip against the side of a military boot. But for all the command and control, she is as dedicated as any Buddhist to the art of letting go of self, of ego.
‘Let the subject take charge of you, get out of the way of the subject,’ she tells her students repeatedly. It’s impossible and exhilarating — as much like a parachute jump as painting.
‘Hello Wakefield’, she says as I approach. ‘This is Marilyn.’ (She pats the car’s hood.) ‘Get in.’
A ten-minute car ride, ten minutes of the Chrysler’s seatbelt warning alarm, and we arrive at Maggi’s studio where she begins work every day at 5 a.m. On the door, the hand-painted words: ‘Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood’; inside, a portrait of her late father, Harry Hambling, materialising from the canvas. ‘It began as a painting of the Suffolk mist,’ she says, ‘but that didn’t work, so I turned the canvas around, kept on painting and Father just appeared.’ Maggi disappears into a tiny kitchen to make coffee, but her voice floats back into the studio behind her: ‘What Brancusi said is true. Something takes you over, something comes from somewhere and the painting paints itself. I’m not in charge.’
With Maggi occupied, I nose about. Every wall of the studio seems to tremble, every work on the brink in some way. There are waves rising, mouths eating, people peering back from the other side of death; a series of portraits and self-portraits soon to be shown at Marlborough Fine Art in which the paint seems alarmingly alive, as if it is still painting itself as I watch. There are faces collapsing into laughs. ‘It’s a very sexy thing, a laugh,’ says Maggi from behind me. ‘It’s about letting go.’
Other, larger, portraits leaning against another wall are for her other new show, The Quick and the Dead, at the Jerwood Gallery. These new portraits are of her friends. There’s one of the artist Sarah Lucas, ‘the YBA I like the best’, another of the photographer Juergen Teller, soft charcoals of his soft, square head.
‘Do you always have to like the people you paint?’ She says: ‘Portraits are about love… Well, it’s all about love, right Wakefield? The whole thing is about love and you can’t make a work of art without love.’ What a happy antithesis Maggi is to the late Lucian Freud. For Maggi, the artist has to forget herself, inhabit the subject. For Freud, every portrait, every subject he painted was autobiographical. ‘It is all about myself,’ he said. You can tell.
Most loving of the portraits in the Jerwood show, I reckon, are the ones of Sebastian Horsley, Maggi’s ‘wicked son’, the self-styled Dandy in the Underworld who lived and breathed Soho, and died there in 2010. Maggi used to drink with Sebastian at the Colony Room where Francis Bacon once held court. Bacon was fond of saying: ‘If you can’t be rude to your friends, who can you be rude to?’ This rather set the tone for the Colony. ‘Wasn’t it a bit exhausting, that life?’ I ask Maggi. ‘Everyone telling each other to “fuck off” all the time?’
‘Well I rather loved the idea that everyone would tell each other to fuck off and everything else one night, then turn up the next day and still be friends. I think that’s good. And all that’s gone now. The way everyone pussyfoots around everything now, and this cursed political correctness.’
For Maggi, PC isn’t just irritating, it’s suffocating. Art requires truth — she learnt this first from the artists Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines (known as Lett) who took her on as a student when she was just 15 at their East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. ‘The great thing was, they were direct,’ she says of Lett and Morris. ‘There were rows and everything but it was open. People were going for the truth. That was a revelation to me and it had a huge effect.’
‘What was the most valuable thing they taught you?’ ‘Well it’s been written so often, but when I was working with Lett in the kitchen he said, “If you’re going to be an artist, your work has to be your best friend and you can go to it whatever you’re feeling — tired, randy, bored, whatever — and have a conversation with it.” And that’s how I’ve lived my life. So this,’ Maggi waves at the room around us, ‘is what’s real. Even now when I get out of that door in a way it’s unreal. This is what’s real.’
At midday we take a break from reality and have some lunch with Maggi’s friend the artist Tory Lawrence. The best book about Maggi, one of the best and least pretentious books I’ve read about any artist, is a long conversation with her by The Spectator’s former critic Andrew Lambirth. Lambirth’s book includes a poem Maggi wrote for Tory when she first fell in love with her. ‘When will you decide, my love, to come with me?’ They’ve been together ever since.
In an interview in 2014 Lynn Barber asked Maggi if she thought of their friendship as a marriage. ‘It’s a war!’ she told Barber. ‘We argue about practically everything. If I say something’s black, she’ll say it’s white.’ But as Barber noted, they get on extremely well.
‘I won over Tory with my dancing,’ says Maggi. ‘I asked her to dance and that was that. I’m a pretty good dancer.’
‘You collapsed on the dance floor and we ended up in hospital,’ says Tory. We have a lovely lunch. The pies are top-notch, the sun’s out and the fag smoke keeps the wasps docile.
Back in the garden, Maggi introduces me to her chickens. That one’s Henrietta, she says, pointing to a speckled bantam hiding under a bush. Maggi’s love affair with the chicken’s namesake, the model and Soho regular Henrietta Moraes, interrupted her relationship with Tory in the early 1990s. The way Maggi describes it, it was a coup de foudre. ‘Henrietta just stormed in like a force of nature and took me over,’ she says. The result was some of the most tender and powerful portraits by a living artist. I say: ‘Didn’t Henrietta once accuse you of stealing her soul?’
Maggi looks down. The room, even the paint, seems sad. ‘That was quite a thing when she said that. I don’t know what I think about it. I don’t want to steal anyone’s soul. I’m just trying to get at their spirit you know…
‘But as an artist of any kind you have to stand back in order to make the work. I’ve always been a little envious of people like Henrietta and Sebastian, who just lived. They’d go to bed with somebody for eight days, really drunk or on drugs, just living — do you know what I mean?’
On the walls around us, Maggi’s dead look forgiving. And though it must inevitably be hard to love someone for whom work comes first, I’ve never met a friend of Maggi’s who doesn’t describe her as kind. When I ask Juergen Teller for a three-word description of her, he gives me four: ‘intimidating, shy, very sweet.’
Are you frightened of death? I ask Maggi as I prepare to leave. ‘Terrified!’ she says. ‘I’m always told that I’m a control freak and that’s the point at which you have no control. I sometimes say to myself, I can’t swim really but I like floating and maybe death’s like that. At least artists are lucky, not like tennis players or ballet dancers. We can go on doing what we do. I’d like to die with a brush in my hand.’
Maggi Hambling: New Portraits is at Marlborough Fine Art in London from October 24 to November 24. The Quick and the Dead: Hambling – Horsley – Lucas — Simmons — Teller is at the Jerwood Gallery Hastings from October 20 to January 6 2019