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An Oscar winner after all

REVELATIONS; The time: Spring 1959 The place: Amberfield School, Nacton, Suffolk The woman: Maggi Hambling, painter and sculptor
I grew up in Hadleigh in Suffolk. My father worked in the bank. I went first to Hadleigh Hall school, where we were read stories in the afternoons. Other people would fill in squared paper with crayons and make decorative patterns, but I always drew rather androgynous people. Oscar Wilde's stories for children were read to us at morning prayers. I found the imagery of them extraordinary, and the language, and the tenderness, but mostly the imagination. Wilde has been a passion of mine since I was 11, and I asked for his complete works for my 12th birthday. His defiance and his androgyny echoed something inside me.

I failed the entrance exam to Ipswich High School, so went to what I called the dunces' school: Amberfield at Nacton in Suffolk. As my mother would have said, it was all meant to be, because the art teacher there was Yvonne Drewry, the painter, who still lives and works in Suffolk. Yvonne Drewry gently suggested that I might make a painting during one of the art classes because I would only ever draw and she thought I might be colour-blind.

The turning point in my life was an art exam. I was 14 and I'd done nothing except flick paint at people, generally be a nuisance and draw attention to myself because I was deeply in love with the mistress invigilating the exam. I suddenly realised it was twenty past three, and at half past three I had to hand in a painting. There were three subjects and I chose "Laziness", and it was a painting of a woman lying on a chaise longue with a half-open book. I came top, which was the most amazing shock.

I took this result very seriously. Prior to this moment, I'd wanted to go on the stage. My father was terrific on the stage and I wanted to be like him, so going to see him across the footlights of Hadleigh Amateur Dramatics Society was an important part of my childhood. But Yvonne Drewry said something which impressed me: that if I went on the stage, if I was very lucky I might work one month out of 12, whereas if I went on to become an artist - however poor I might be - I could always afford a bit of paper and a pencil.

I then got my mother to buy me a set of oil paints. I was beginning to paint the Suffolk landscape, staying with Yvonne Drewry during the holidays. It was very hot and insects were sticking to the paint, the palette, the brush. She wandered across the field to see how I was getting on, and I said, "I don't know what to do: these insects are everywhere." And she said, "Well, there's only one thing to do - have a cigarette." That is where my smoking began, and I now can't conceive of working without a cigarette in my hand.

When I was 15, I took my first two oil paintings under my arm to what was called locally the Artists' House, where Lett Haines and Cedric Morris ran the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. They were both very encouraging. As I left, Lett suggested painting there in the school holidays, so I did. It was an extraordinary privilege to have gone there. I worked in the kitchen with Lett, helping him with cooking, and painting. He said the most important thing that anyone's ever said to me: that I should have the relationship with my work that I have with my best friend. In other words, one could go to one's work in any condition, any mood, and have a conversation with it.

I left school halfway through A-levels - there was a sense that my parents were going to be asked to take me away, so I thought I would deny the school that pleasure and remove myself. I went first to Ipswich Art School, then on to Camberwell and the Slade. I continued to go to the Artists' House.

When my father retired from the bank at the age of 60, I gave him some paints, and suddenly one morning, when he was 65, he began to work. He's a completely natural painter, very sophisticated, and he's working towards about his fifth exhibition, at 95. He makes landscapes, portraits, still lifes, paintings from the imagination. He still lives in Suffolk and I visit him every third weekend.

On the whole, people are my subjects. It's people, more than anything else, that move me. I get up at six in the summer, seven in the winter. I think a lot of my work is done when I'm asleep. Sometimes answers come in dreams. It's with me when I'm asleep, or when my dog Percy is taking me for a walk. It's with me all the time, like an itch.

The battle is not to be labelled as some kind of -ist (eg feminist, modernist). People, particularly in England, like to have you in a pigeonhole. Making art is a very mysterious business, and nowadays this terrible de- mystification goes on, which I don't approve of at all. Picasso said we're all partly male and partly female, and to make a work of art you have to bring the whole thing together, and so whether you happen to be a woman or a man is completely irrelevant.

The crucial thing is to experiment. Giacometti likened the business of making art to a blind man groping in darkness. I think it's about being alive and in the present and fully responding to that thing outside you or inside you, at the moment of making.

To have been chosen to make a public statue of Oscar Wilde is quite an unnerving challenge. It's very exciting, it's also daunting. The inspiration for my piece of work is based on that marvellous thing he said: "We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars"n

Interview by Veronica Groocock

'A Statue for Oscar Wilde' by Maggi Hambling - a collection of portraits and sculptures of Oscar Wilde - launches an appeal for funds to finance the statue, and opens at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on 20 May. 'A Matter of Life and Death' - Bronzes by Maggi Hambling, opens at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, on 19 June.