Maggi Hambling: INTERVIEW BY RACHELLE THACKRAY

THE SITTER'S TALE; Faces from the National Portrait Gallery: the artist remembers why her self-portrait needed three arms
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The Independent Culture
My love life was in a muddle when I painted this, over 20 years ago. I was confused, and the muddle is what greets the viewer. There's part of a female nude in the corner; the teapot and the clown figurine were made by a very close friend of mine; the brass-eye photograph, from a series taken in a brothel, I found particularly erotic. The man doing the card tricks was someone I'd encountered in a pub near where I lived in Battersea. I found him very moving. He was doing these tricks so that people would buy him a drink. No one did.

The leaves of the begonia, the branch of the tree of happiness, were growing by the window in my studio; the tomato at the bottom left was the only tomato I had managed to cultivate all summer. There are autumn leaves sailing into the space at the top and falling out of the bottom. The gulls were swooping about outside, and Concorde always went directly above my studio. I still love Concorde.

I got interested in the puffer fish, which puffs itself up to make itself frightening. There's an element of that in us sometimes. The adder pretends to be dead to catch its prey. And I've always liked penguins.

Three arms are necessary: one for the paintbrush, one for the cigarette, one for the drink. The cat, Onde, considered that chair to be hers, so I'd sit opposite the canvas having to share it with her.

It's a painting made without any attempt at composition. Wherever I made an accidental mark, there had to be something; so the composition just happened, really. I am quite pleased at the way there still seems to be space for the person looking at it to inhabit the canvas, although it's full of all these diverse things.

I usually do self-portraits when I am not obsessed with another person that I'm painting. I don't choose my obsessions; I am chosen by them. I find someone or something moves me, and that's how it happens. When I am painting someone else, I try and empty myself so the truth can come through me on to the canvas or into the bronze. I am used to being a channel when I'm painting or sculpting.

Here, I am just saying, "What's it all about, Alfie?" I don't find any emotion here. What I like is that it's quite raw. The muddle was occupying me, and there's probably something in all these animals, birds and objects that excited me that life goes on. The world is large and one is very small.

Maggi Hambling's 1979 self-portrait hangs in the NPG, London WC2 (0171 306 0055)

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