Free spirit: Maggi Hambling on art, taboos and political correctness

The controversial artist explains why art should go for the heart and talks about the special relationship with her great friend, the late jazz singer George Melly
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Maggi Hambling won't be photographed without a cigarette. She doesn't smoke any more, but it's a point of principle. The woman who once appeared on a TV quiz show sporting a moustache, and who has often been snapped at parties in feather boas, fishnets and fedoras and who, following the death of her toothless, alcoholic lesbian lover, did a series of paintings celebrating the potency of Special Brew, believes that it's important to make a stand. She believes it's important to make a stand for the right to smoke what you want, drink what you want, wear what you want and love who you want. Maggi Hambling, creator of paintings and sculptures of sometimes breathtaking humanity, believes it's important to be free.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that when she met George Melly, jazz singer, critic, champion of sexual freedom and surrealism and flouter of conventions par excellence, there was an instant rapport. "It was at a summer garden party," she says, in her deep, patrician, still-smoker's voice. "We had each had a considerable amount to drink. I was lying on one bit of the path, and George was lying down on another bit. We were encouraged by, I can't remember who, to sort of move towards each other and we did. He said it was like snakes, but I," she concludes matter-of-factly, "thought it was more like worms."

An intense artistic dialogue developed, and then shared TV stardom of a kind, as they both took part in the Channel 4 art quiz, Gallery (a forum in which flamboyance featured rather more than erudition), and then, finally, friendship. And now, nearly 30 years on, there's this explosion of colour and energy and movement and beauty and nature and laughter and life. George Melly may be dead, but here, in Maggi Hambling's light-filled studio, he is wonderfully, exuberantly alive. The woman who Melly himself once called "Maggi (Coffin) Hambling", in response to her habit of producing paintings and drawings of people on their deathbeds, has ensured that George Melly will, in one sense, never die.

Gazing at the paintings in the catalogue on the bus to Hambling's south London home, I actually gasped. Here, in the studio, they give me gooseflesh. They feel, in a way, like the climax of Hambling's career so far. The artist who produced deeply compassionate portraits of old men and women in pubs, and see-straight-to-the-core ones of people like Max Wall, Derek Jarman and Stephen Fry, and moving drawings and paintings of her father on his deathbed, and of her great love, Henrietta Moraes, on hers, and sculptures of strange creatures and lips and laughs, and landscapes, and seascapes, and sunsets and sunrises, seems to have produced a series of paintings in which all these things meld and ebb and flow together, in a celebration of art, a celebration of life.

Is that what it feels like to her? Hambling nods. She isn't wearing fishnets, or a fox fur or a fedora, but paint-spattered black trousers and a paint-spattered white shirt. She is, however, wearing a biker-style studded leather armband, lots of rings and lots of mascara. Famously scary, she is friendly, but fierce. She has made coffee downstairs in her cosy kitchen, but when I've gushed over the pictures, the paintings, the proliferation of elephants, the rugs and the giant plant (called Esmerelda, apparently) that looms over the conservatory like a tree of life, she has noted, drily, that she hopes I'm not writing for World of Interiors. I assure her that I'm not. I'm here to talk about art. And life. And love. And maybe smoking. And, of course, these amazing new paintings, which seem to combine them all.

"Yes," she says. "It sort of does feel like it's all come together." She points at a giant portrait of Melly in the corner. "I really feel that that large-scale portrait has the movement of a wave in it. You know, the split-second thing has always been important to me. Obviously, you paint for many hours or days or weeks and months on one painting, and it's got to come together in one moment, and that moment, to me, is always about movement. When I paint a portrait, it's got to be that the person is breathing... I had no idea how much I would miss George. And if you really love someone, then they're there forever, aren't they?"

When Henrietta Moraes (former Queen of Soho, former cat thief, and semi-abusive drunkard who broke Maggi Hambling's heart) died, Hambling said she believed she had gone to live on the moon. Has she been joined by George? "I think it's a nice idea," she says, "and how they're all getting on with my father and mother I don't know." Well yes, it's a nice idea, but does she actually believe it? Hambling actually wriggles her eyebrows. "I'm not sure," she says, "that I'm a great thinker. I'm a doer. I think if you think too much you don't do anything. And I just think that after a couple of drinks at night, you see the moon looking wonderful and you feel like saying, 'Hi, Henrietta!' And why not? A lot of people seem to have lost the light touch."

Hambling, clearly, is not among them and nor, famously, was Melly. He not only made her laugh, but used to test his jokes on her. "I don't," she rasps, "know how you go on without jokes." And in a world not over-burdened with a sense of humour, a world, in fact, which spouts forth an awful lot of leaden nonsense about subverting notions of this, that or the other, a world which encourages people to spend longer reading the labels on paintings than looking at them, this is refreshing. Perhaps it's a lack of that levity that makes so much contemporary art so bad?

"It's hardly for me to bitch about other living artists," says Hambling, "but there must be a reason why a lot of art you just have to see once for a very short time. You look at a Rubens, or a late Titian, or a Rembrandt self-portrait and go back again and again and again. And you have this silent conversation with it about life and death all at the same moment. I have stood and cried in front of a Van Gogh painting of an apple tree in blossom. That vulnerable thing, do you see? The Rembrandt shows the vulnerability of being a human being and it's the opposite, absolute opposite of show-off. Call me old-fashioned or an old fogey, but I like art that actually hits you in the heart."

This, of course, is the other Maggi Hambling. Not the one who barks barbed comments and clipped witticisms from behind her tuxedo or, on one memorable occasion on TV, gold lamé dress, but the one who paints people who are old or frail or lost or dying, the one who paints their wrinkles and their veins and shows you their soul. It was a poet called Victor Musgrave, she explains in Maggi Hambling – The Works, a book-length conversation with Andrew Lambirth, who told her, while she was painting his portrait, that she had "the right balance between staying vulnerable and maintaining a backbone of steel". Her mother, she said, always said she was "the most obstinate child she had ever come across."

Certainly it was an unconventional childhood. Born just after the end of the war in Suffolk, she grew up in Hadleigh, the daughter of a bisexual bank-manager father who had a late flowering as an artist and a primary-school-teacher mother who "wanted our family to resemble a Noël Coward play". Her brother wanted a baby brother and decided to treat her as one anyway. At the age of six, she fell in love with Oscar Wilde. Torn between her extroversion (she wanted to be an actor) and her introversion (her developing art) she went, at 15, to the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, run by Lett Haines and his partner Cedric Morris, and the course of her life was set. Ipswich School of Art followed and then Camberwell and the Slade. And this, of course, was the Sixties. I think it's fair to say that Hambling's Sixties swung.

"I think part of it," she says, "is maybe this thing of being independent. This independence was the thing that from the age of 15 came from going to Lett and Cedric in Suffolk: that art was the priority of life and the thing to do was to be yourself." But what about the persona, the ultra-brittle, ultra-flamboyant persona? Was that really her being herself? Hambling sips her coffee and pauses. "It's a defence," she says. "You know people can eat you up, so I like to choose who eats me up – and I'm very choosy." So has she been aware of feeling not entirely authentic? Another long pause. "Absolutely," she says.

The truth is that while she was being photographed knocking back the whiskies or waving feather boas, or slithering on paths with George Melly, Maggi Hambling was getting up at five every day (six in winter) and staring at a blank canvas, for hours and hours and hours on end, and adding brushstrokes which sometimes go somewhere and sometimes don't. "It's hell, mostly," she says. "And it's a very masochistic business. I do the same thing every day, and something goes right, for half an hour, a couple of times a month. You work for those moments."

And can she in any way explain what it is that happens when a painting or a sculpture takes off? Hambling shrugs. "Something takes over," she says. "I was working on a big head of Henrietta for about three or four months. It would come alive and die, come alive and die. I remember it was a Tuesday evening and this painting really did die. Something took over on Wednesday morning and I came up and did that other painting. And that happened in about an hour and a half. It couldn't have happened had I not spent that three and a half months on the other. There is that thing, when the going gets tough, the professional goes on and the amateur puts it to one side."

The professional certainly does go on. The professional goes on even when their statue of Oscar Wilde (at Charing Cross) is ridiculed in the press, and when their portrait of Michael Jackson is returned by the Royal Academy and when their sculpture, Scallop, a tribute to Benjamin Britten, on Aldeburgh beach, and the work of which the professional is actually most proud, is defaced by graffiti, again and again and again. This professional goes on because she has to. "I can't," she says simply, "do anything else." And this professional, who spends weekends in a cottage in Suffolk left to her by a patron, but who never, ever goes on holiday, goes on even though "it gets more and more difficult".

And the outrageous extrovert? What about her? "Perhaps," says Hambling, "I've never grown up. But I don't care. The truth of me," she adds, with a rakish smile, "is in this studio. No hats."

George Always: Portraits of George Melly by Maggi Hambling is at the Walker Arts Gallery, Liverpool, 27 February to 31 May (