How We Met: Maggi Hambling and Paul Bailey

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The Independent Culture
Maggi Hambling was born in Suffolk in 1945. She studied art at Camberwell and the Slade, and in 1980 was the National Gallery's first Artist in Residence. She is a regular panellist on the television art quiz, 'Gallery', with George Melly. She lives in south London. Her latest exhibition of sculptures opens in London next month. Paul Bailey was born in 1937 and trained as an actor, but switched to writing. His first novel, At The Jerusalem, won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1968; he has since been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His latest novel is Sugar Cane.

MAGGI HAMBLING: Alister Warman, director of the Serpentine Gallery, where I had a show in 1987, had the idea that there should be more than one contributor to the catalogue, that it should have writers in it. I thought it was a great idea. He thought Paul would be very good and I hadn't heard of him, so Alister lent me At the Jerusalem and Trespasses which I read, and thought were marvellous. So a lunch was arranged with Alister, Marina Warner, who was writing the introductory essay, and Paul. The first time I saw Paul was when I greeted him at the door. He was out of breath, saying that he'd run to the studio, and I thought he meant he'd run from Hammersmith, but I think it was only from the bus stop.

We sat down and had lunch, he said very, very little, but he complimented me on the tomatoes. Then we went upstairs to the studio to see the work and he sat in total, complete silence for what seemed like hours. They went away, and I rang Alister and said, 'Well, that was a fat lot of good, wasn't it?' He said, 'On the contrary, he loved your work and he'd like to write about it,' which was quite amazing to me as he hadn't said anything. I realise now he was very shy.

So he wrote the piece, and I liked it very much - I thought it was beautiful. Only a writer could have brought Martina Navratilova, one of my heroes, into a piece about my paintings. Then he asked me to lunch one Sunday. My going out to lunch was an exception - I work during the day. Beryl Bainbridge was there, and Bernice Rubens and Howard Jacobson. I was the only painter, and I was very silent. They were moaning about the advances other writers were getting and I realised it was just like when painters are together.

Paul was the first writer I got to know. I think the physical thing is always there in any real friendship, I've never been attracted to skeletons, and I think he has the most marvellous sparkling eyes, very perceptive. We both love camp, we laugh at the same things. And he makes me laugh a lot, he's a wonderful mimic.

We usually see each other during the evening. Paul comes to supper here or I go there - he is the sort of cook that I'm not, partridges in cider, that kind of thing. We might see each other three times in two weeks and then not for a couple of months, but we do speak on the telephone very regularly. Paul telephones me and I'll ask him if the Muse is over there, and when he's finished with her would he kindly send her back to me because I haven't seen her for a few days.

I've learnt a bit about what it is to try to write and I suppose he's learnt a bit about what it is to try to paint, how close and how different they are.

Paul asked me if I'd do the book cover for Sugar Cane. He brought me this very sexy piece of sugar cane. Taking on the challenge of a book jacket, something I'd never thought of before, was the beginning of several months doing new things. I started to make my first little sculptures and I've been making them ever since. And Paul didn't just write the piece for the Serpentine catalogue, he subsequently wrote a piece about my last paintings, 'Forgotten Painters', and he's begun a book on Francis Bacon, so he's been practising on me, really.

I think trust is terribly important. I feel I can trust Paul and I hope he feels the same about me. When the Muse isn't with us, we can talk - about anything.

PAUL BAILEY: I remember our first meeting distinctly. I had been invited to write a piece for the catalogue of Maggi's first big exhibition and I said 'I don't know why you're asking me.' It turned out that they wanted writers as well as art critics to write about her stuff. So I agreed to go to her studio to look at the paintings before I finally committed myself.

I walked all the way from Shepherd's Bush to Clapham. I don't know why but I was paralysed with nerves. She opened the door and stared me straight in the eye. It was just terribly unnerving because she has got fierce blue eyes. She was wearing her working clothes, an old shirt, an old sweater, a filthy old pair of jeans - that's how you see her mostly, except on grand occasions where she dresses up and wears wonderful bow ties. (I seem to recall one that revolved.) I didn't speak a word for hours, I was busy looking at the paintings and nodding. I'd seen the Max Wall paintings, for which she is famous, but that was all. It was a complete revelation, I saw that she was painting lots and lots of other things and also that she's quite a formidable watercolourist.

She liked what I wrote and I was touched - I was in some trepidation, because I can't write in the art jargon. I can only say 'I like this' and why. It was difficult - I thought perhaps people expect something of writing about art that's different from writing about anything else.

Through knowing her I've moved into a totally different world. She knows lots of painters and I have to say I find them a lot nicer than the people I might have met otherwise.

We see each other every three or four weeks or so, depending on how much work she's got on. One of the things that impresses me about her is her extraordinary ability to work. She really drives herself, and she's never satisfied. She'll be in her studio at six o'clock on an average morning, painting away, and often a lot of the work she does is not quite right so it means doing it again.

She often gets a theme and does several paintings on that theme. It's question of finding the right moment, getting the right image. In that she's very much like her hero Francis Bacon, who destroyed more than he ever exhibited. I think that takes great integrity, the critic is the artist.

The surface impression is quite steely and tough, and that is totally wrong, because she is extremely vulnerable and rather fragile underneath. That's a quality I like in people. She's extremely forthright and can always back up her opinions with solid reasons, but about her own work she knows that she's good but is also quite vulnerable about it; an interesting combination.

We make each other laugh a lot. We're very warm to each other. The fact that we are both gay doesn't seem to me to really matter - the subject's never come up. You can be friends with people who are one or the other, and it's some quality in them that you like that's important.

We've been to Wimbledon together, because we're both tennis fanatics, and we tend to go to each other's places for dinner - we like long, drunken dinner parties where you just chat for hours. I'm a fanatical cook. Maggi thinks cooking is a terribly boring thing. The most she's given me is cheese on toast - luckily her friend is a good cook.

She's very well-read but she's very hesitant about casting judgement on books. We have a bit of a mutual admiration society. I was thrilled that she said yes when I asked her to paint the cover of my book - it's the first she'd ever done and she was terribly nervous. I gave her a chunk of the novel to read and I said 'It's called Sugar Cane - I want you to paint some sugar cane for me,' so she said 'Well, find me some.' I went to Shepherd's Bush market just down the road and got two sticks. One was the green kind that everybody recognises, but the other bit was ripe and had gone a wonderful sort of red colour, so I took both pieces to Maggi, and she did this wonderful watercolour.

Essentially she just is a very nice person. She comes from a different world and in friendships like that you're always learning something new. Sparking ideas off people stops you becoming a bit mouldy. She's told me what is good about certain abstract painters - the abstract is something I can't quite cope with. But she's just great fun to be with. People making each other laugh is the perfect recipe for friendship.