Maggi Hambling: 'I was put forward to paint the Queen Mother but the word came back saying I was a bit risky'

As a painter and sculptor, she’s an art-world legend – but as our intrepid interviewer discovers, Maggi Hambling's private life is every bit as colourful as her work
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The Independent Culture

Maggi Hambling – OBE, CBE, painter, portraitist, sculptor, and so pretty much the full Monty, art-wise – lives part of the week in a cottage in Suffolk, so the deal is if I get myself to Saxmundham train station she'll pick me up, as she does. She is waiting on the platform in her paint-splattered boots and a T-shirt enlivened by the slogan "Do I look bothered?". She is 64 and, in photographs, looks rather forbidding, like some hooded bird of prey poised to pick you up in its beak, thrash you about a bit, and then have you for breakfast but, in the flesh, she is quite soft, with wavy grey hair and lovely blue eyes framed by a ton of mascara. She is famed for always wearing a ton of mascara. And the best brand? "The best one is undoubtedly Princess Borghese," she says, "but you can't get it in this country any more. I think I use Lancôme at the moment."

We walk to her car. It is not a car you could ever miss. It is a massive white Chrysler thingummy (sorry, not good at cars) which, she says, was always being mistaken for a wedding limousine so now she's personalised it with red trim and wheels, and a number plate ending in "GAY". It is very glamorous, very Scott Fitzgerald, although she calls the car "Marilyn" because it's so "sexy". (Maggi Hambling's favourite film of all time: Some Like it Hot.) She says she used to drive Bentleys but is so over that now. "The last one broke down on the A12. Just stopped. I took it back to the Bentley man, but the steering was never right." She gets into the driver's seat, I get into the passenger seat and, as she talks, I note that she has a tooth – upper row; left side – that is blue. Not an Yves Klein blue, more a royal blue, but it is astonishingly blue all the same. I note this but because I've been well brought-up (Thanks, Mum!) I don't say anything until she says: "Have you noticed I've got a blue tooth?" Gosh, really? Let me see. So you have! Wow! Imagine that! Um... why? She says the cap on that tooth kept falling off and while in the dentist's chair, looking up at those screens dentists have, the one with the "fantastic blue line running across it", she thought: why not a tooth that colour? She then says: "It's a proper tooth, porcelain, and as I'm completely non-technical, I like the idea of having Bluetooth." She laughs. She likes jokes. She likes the one David Hockney told her once. It goes: "The trouble with Van Gogh is if you tell him something it goes in one ear and stays there." She laughs again. I think this is going to be fun. I don't think I'm going to be thrashed and eaten for breakfast. Hurrah! I so hate being thrashed about and eaten for breakfast. Don't you?

We arrive at the cottage, where she spends half the week (her other house is in Clapham, south London). The cottage is beautiful, and was a gift, literally. It was left to her by an admirer, Lady Gwatkin, who bought a painting from Maggi in 1988, invited her for dinner, and made a pass at her. However, nothing came of it – the pass, that is – because, just as Lady Gwatkin was moving in for the kill, so to speak, Maggi's dog at the time, Percy, "leapt vertically between us, fangs at the ready, emitting a blood-curdling growl, and I backed out the front door". Nevertheless, Lady Gwatkin can't have been too cross, as she left Maggi the cottage and water meadows when she died in 1994. Was Maggi shocked? You bet. "I could not believe it!" she exclaims. Why did she leave it to you, I ask. I mean, I'm sure you're delightful and all that, but still. Because, Maggi says, the Hamblings are Suffolk folk through and through – "there are 42 Hamblings in Snape graveyard" – and "Lady Gwatkin had this great belief in Suffolk land going back to Suffolk people and she knew I would look after it."

We go into Maggi's painting studio, where Maggi promptly lights up. Maggi, I exclaim, you are smoking again! Didn't you give up five years ago? She says she did but last year, on her birthday, her large bronze sculpture of a rising wave was being erected, and it was fraught, and "I thought: fuck it. It's my birthday. I'll smoke." She hated not smoking, and the first few months were particularly appalling. "I ate a lot of muesli bars and thought I would never paint again." She smokes with sensational gusto, lighting her next cigarette from the last, stubbing them out on a table leg and letting the butts drop to the floor. It's terrific. It's proper, full-on smoking of the kind I admire. I can't stand namby-pamby, take-it-or-leave-it smokers. I call them "crap smokers" and Maggi is not a crap smoker. "I had pleurisy at Christmas," she says, "and vowed I'd never smoke again. It was quite frightening. I couldn't breathe. But the minute I felt better..." Of course.

As a painter, she is probably best known for her portraits, often described as "tenderly expressive" and "extraordinarily compassionate", probably because they are. She has painted no one in particular – drinkers in pubs, neighbours, street drinkers – as well as Max Wall, Stephen Fry, Derek Jarman and her great, late friend, George Melly, who called her Maggi "Coffin" Hambling, because she is so keen on drawing dead and dying people. She drew her father, Harry, as he was dying. She drew her mother, Marjorie, in her coffin. "She looked beautiful and serene." She drew her lover, Henrietta Moraes, while she was in her coffin. "She looked furious." She says she doesn't have a thing for dying. They were dead. She had her sketchbook. She's an artist. What else was she meant to do? Although Henrietta died in 1997, and their affair lasted less than a year, she might have been Maggi's great love. Once "the Queen of Soho", Henrietta had been the muse of both Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in her day, but by the time Maggi met her she was an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver. She would promise to give up drinking, and sometimes did, but mostly she didn't. Maggie could tell when she'd been drinking "because she'd make up one eye and not the other". Henrietta, she says, "was an artist of life. She pushed everything to the extreme". Do you still miss her? "Oh, yes."

But now, at least, Maggi has a new muse, and this muse is the sea. And here, in the studio, we are surrounded by her sea paintings. Big paintings, little paintings, but all of the sea, of waves just about to crash. I'm afraid I'm not visually literate in the least – when the poster chain Athena closed a little something in me died – but even I can tell there is something distinctly wild and powerful about these paintings. What is your first memory of the sea, Maggi? "As a toddler my mother would take me to Frinton. I always wanted to go to Clacton because it had funfairs and all the rest, but she was a bit of a snob so she preferred Frinton. I remember very clearly walking into the sea and I never stopped talking to it. I talked and talked and talked to it." What about? "I don't know. I just talked to it." The sea frightens me, I say. "That's all part of the seduction," she says. "It's the power and the energy and it's very sexy. As a wave approaches you and gets itself together and rears up and becomes almost solid and then dissolves, it's like an orgasm." Crikey. And will you ever go back to portraits? "I think Richard Ingrams wants me to do his portrait but I haven't got round to doing anything about it yet." Who would you like to do? The Queen? "I think I was once put forward to paint the Queen Mother but the word came back saying I was a bit risky, so it didn't happen." Perhaps they thought you'd seduce her. "She was very fond of gentlemen." She could have painted Margaret Thatcher but didn't bother. Some big Conservative association wanted her to do it but she refused. "Making a work of art is making a work of love," she says, "and it wasn't quite what I felt about her."

We have a mooch about. She carries a big, old-style mobile phone. "I have this brick," she explains, "because I've tried those slender, modern ones and lost three, in quick succession, when I put them in the washing machine in the back pocket of jeans. This is a bit more obvious." She really is rubbish when it comes to technology. Fax machines, she says, perplexed her for years. "I thought you put a bit of paper into your machine and somehow the paper went through the air and arrived in someone else's machine. I couldn't understand why the air wasn't full of bits of paper." I take a peek into her cottage, which is lovely. There are beams. There are lots of wooden birds, for some reason. There are umpteen bottles of whisky on the mantelpiece. Maggi does like whisky – her favourite is Laphroaig – but nowadays it's for the evening only. "I used to have a drink any old time, but it really does me in if I drink at lunchtime now. I used to be able to drink all night, dance all night, and get up first thing, but it takes the energy, you know."

We head for her sculpture studio to see her latest work: bronze sculptures and reliefs of waves. Do you ever think: enough, already, with the waves? Not yet, she says. "They still have me by the short and curlies." As a sculptor, Maggi's public works include her Charing Cross memorial to Oscar Wilde – it shows him rising from a sarcophagus – and her ode to Benjamin Britten, Scallop, a four-metre-high steel shell on Aldeburgh beach. Both have been – how shall I put this? – controversial. Critics seem to loathe Oscar. This paper's Tom Lubbock, for example, called it a "wilfully tacky, silly, Tussaudian tragedy". Ouch. And Scallop has been repeatedly defaced. Paint has even been tipped over it. Twice. Why? Because, says Maggi, "there are people in Aldeburgh for whom a Constable is a little avant garde". Do you mind criticism? Or outrage, even? She says: "I like what Donald Wolfit said. If he got a good review he said it had been written by an intelligent person and if he got a bad review he said it had been written by one of his enemies. Ha!" Ha, indeed.

Her latest public sculpture, the one of the rising wave, ended up not going public at all. "It was going to be for Saffron Walden, next to the church, where there used to be a Henry Moore," she says. "And I thought the whole organic surge of it next to a church would be terrific, a primitive thing. But then the new Tory council came in and they said they didn't want my wave because I wasn't born in Saffron Walden; if they gave money for this it would take it away from the sports-centre fund, they didn't much like the look of it – which was honest, at least – and they didn't think it was an original work of art because, as they wrote in the letter, 'we happen to know she's painted these waves already', which is like saying to Picasso, we don't want a nude." Or anything too cube-y? "Exactly." However, a neighbour saw the maquette, and commissioned it for his land, where it now stands. We visit it later and it is magnificent. Scary from afar, but embracing when you draw near. "It's Saffron Walden's loss," she says, happily.

Anyway, from here, in her sculpture studio, I can see out over the water meadows, which are gorgeous: lush, vividly green, tranquil. I can also see a woman walking two dogs. Who is that, I ask. That, says Maggi, is Tory Lawrence, the landscape painter. She lives here? No, not quite. "I've known Tory since 1983 and when the cottage next door came up for sale, she bought that." Are you in a relationship? "Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes." I try to work out if this relationship pre-dates Henrietta or post-dates Henrietta and think it is probably both. Didn't Tory mind, when Henrietta came along? "She's – what can I say? – she is philosophical. Henrietta was a force of nature that happened." I do not make a pass at Maggi, so do not know if the dogs would go for my throat, but suspect not. The dogs are Lux, Maggi's Tibetan terrier – "a utility dog and so rather useless" – and Hester, Tory's long-haired dachshund, who is the laziest thing ever. I can see Tory prodding her bum, to keep her moving. Would you have liked to have been a mother, Maggi? "The thing of actually giving birth to this thing that's been inside you for nine months must be quite an event," she says. "And I've always said that if ever a painting was crying out in one room and a baby was crying out in another, I'm animal enough to go to the baby... it sounds corny but it's true... my works are my babies. Some bigger than others."

I ask Maggi when she first realised she was "GAY", as the number plate would have it. She says she just always knew. And your first crush? Her guider, she thinks, when she was a Girl Guide. "Her name was Diana Stile and, as it was about 10 years after the war, her uniform was a mixture of very smart Guiding uniform and Wren. She hunted. She was very good." Did your parents accept you being gay? "My mother had a great problem with it as she was a very churchy person. But then she went for a weekend stay at a monastery and said to a monk: 'I have this daughter...' and she hated saying the word 'lesbian', and I don't like it either. I prefer lesbionic or dyke. Anyway, this monk said: 'I hope you have never held it against her' and, of course, she always had. But this transformed her. The monk said they should pray that I meet someone with whom I could be happy, so that was pretty good." As for her father, he didn't have a leg to stand on, she says, as he was bisexual anyhow.

Her father worked in Barclays Bank all his life – the branch in Hadleigh, where Maggi was brought up, eight miles from Ipswich. Maggi says he hated it, but at least he had his sexual adventures. Maggi recalls walking into the dining room and discovering him "in a rather intimate state, undressed, with a groundsman from the bowls club". He had many affairs with men, whom her mother referred to as "the gardeners", which made sense, "as they often did help in the garden". After his retirement, he flourished as an artist himself. "At 60, I'd given him paints and suddenly one morning, when he was 65, he took them out and started to paint and the whole of Suffolk was inside him. We had this show together in Colchester in 1988 where he sold everything and I only sold one watercolour, to Lady Gwatkin." Was your mother artistic? "My mother didn't have any artistic blood in her at all. I'd ring up and say: 'Done any painting, father?' and he'd say: 'Yes. Your mother likes it', and then we'd both laugh and say: 'Oh, dear'." Do you ever wonder what sort of artist your father would have become if he hadn't worked in that damned bank? "Who knows," she says. Maggi is neither speculative nor introspective. Why do people commission their own portraits? "You'd have to ask them." How do you feel about dying? "There's nothing you can do about it." She later says she believes art should speak for itself, that's rather its point. "Matisse said if you want to be an artist you should have your tongue cut out, so your way of communication is the work, and that's quite right."

Maggi discovered her own artistic chops, if you like, at school, and then studied at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing under Cedric Morris ("That's where my life began, really") before attending Ipswich School of Art, Camberwell College, and then the Slade. And if no one had ever seen a Maggi Hambling work of art, and you could show them one thing, what would it be? "I'm most keen on my recent stuff. I have to be, or I might as well have given up in '71." She is not against modern, conceptual art, and particularly likes Sarah Lucas. "She has a sense of humour, which is a rare thing." The one thing she doesn't get, though, is photo-realism. "A photo has happened, whereas a painting is happening in front of you. A great Titian or a great Rembrandt or a great Rothko is happening in front of you. It's like you are there when the artist is making it, and that kind of electricity is what excites me."

What else excites Maggi Hambling? Well, she likes classic murder mysteries (Naigo Marsh, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie) and, on the telly, Morse, but not Murder She Wrote. "Too samey." She is a big fan of Coronation Street, if only because "I used to fancy Elsie Tanner". And she adores tennis. "Do you know the saddest cry in the English language," she asks. I do not, I confess. "It's 'Come on, Tim'," she says. She has her eye on Andy Murray. "He is hungry, and we live in hope," is how she puts it.

Anyway, time to go. So it's a quick visit to see that massive, rising wave on neighbouring land and then she kindly drops me back at the station in Marilyn. I give her a kiss goodbye (on the cheek, no tongues). I don't think I'm going to get a cottage out of it, but never mind. It's been fun all the same. And I wasn't thrashed. Or eaten for breakfast. Hurrah!

Sea Sculpture by Maggi Hambling is at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1, Wed to 5 June, marlboroughfineart.com

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