Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling is exhibiting at the British Museum
PUBLISHED: 14:52 24 October 2016 | UPDATED: 14:52 24 October 2016
Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling is one of the few living artists to have been invited to stage an exhibition at the British Museum. Andrew Clarke spoke to her about a very personal show
For Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling drawing lies at the heart of everything she does. Although she is renowned for large, dramatic sea paintings, oil portraits and bronze sculptures, it provides the foundation of all her work.
To celebrate her passion for drawing and her belief that it lies at the heart of an artist’s craft, Maggi has put together a new exhibition at the British Museum which pulls together some of her most cherished drawings. Called Touch, it encompasses her earliest works such as Rhino, a drawing of Rosie the Rhino from Ipswich Museum, completed when Maggi was a student at Ipswich Art School, right up to Edge, a new work depicting a melting glacier, which addresses issues of global warming.
Maggi believes that all art should be anchored by an artist’s ability to set down on paper what they see with their eyes.
“Drawing is an artist’s most direct and intimate response to the world. Charcoal, graphite and ink are each full of endless possibilities. I try to distil the essence of the subject and capture the life force of a moment. The challenge is to touch the subject with all the desire of a lover.”
Passion has always guided Hambling’s work and the exhibition takes its title from this concept of a deep connection with the subject being drawn.
“I believe the subject chooses the artist, not vice versa, and that subject must then be in charge during the act of drawing in order for the truth to be found. Eye and hand attempt to discover and produce those precise marks which will recreate what the heart feels.”
Over the years, Maggi has made drawings of her parents, friends and lovers, those alive and those no longer living. These are intimate, very personal drawings and take centre stage in the exhibition. The show, in many ways, functions as a visual autobiography. One of her most treasured drawings is of her father, Harry, creating his own art work.
“I made a series of images in ink. It’s very much towards the end of his life. He set up his paints on the dining room table and I would make drawings of him as he worked.
“He went on painting right up until the end, and yet didn’t pick up a paint brush until he woke up one morning at 65 and decided to use the painting set I had bought for him when he had retired from the bank. Once he started painting the whole of Suffolk poured out of him. He had seven shows in nearly 30 years.”
Maggi’s show features 40 works, of which several have strong Suffolk connections.
“These are the ones that I care most deeply about.” They include Henrietta Moraes, Queen of Soho, Maggi’s mother in her coffin, mentor Cedric Morris on his death bed, curator Norman Rosenthal, friend Stephen Fry, as well as a large Wall of Water drawing, and Edge, the drawing of a melting glacier.
Maggi says she is honoured to receive a show at the British Museum as it is a very unusual event for a living artist.
“The British Museum was among the very first people to collect my work on paper. They invited me to put a show together because they were the first people to collect drawings. In 1985 they acquired my drawing of Cedric Morris, and the museum has continued to collect my work.”
Regardless of using a brush or a pen and ink, the challenge remains trying to capture the spirit of the subject.
“The drawing with ink of the rhino is very fluid. In that way it is the same challenge as trying to draw the sea, or draw a person. What I am trying to do with ink, or charcoal or graphite in sketchbook is trying to capture the presence of a wave or the presence of a person. Drawing is the basis of everything for me.”
The exhibition will begin with a life-size, striking charcoal portrait of the late writer, artist and Soho dandy, Sebastian Horsley, who Maggi described as “an exotic wild animal”. He is drawn wearing nothing but a silk scarf, and introduces one of the major themes of the show, the human form.
Many of the drawings have never been displayed in public before. Over the years Maggi has spent time in the British Museum Study Room examining the work of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. As she says: “It is an exhilarating sensation to actually handle a Van Gogh drawing because drawing is the most intimate thing an artist does.”
Maggi describes the art of drawing as a contradictory combination of confidence, concentration and not giving a damn.
“It’s a serious business. You pick up a piece of charcoal or graphite and you make a mark. But, there is only so much you can rub out and with ink you can’t rub anything out. So it takes utter concentration, and you are trying to distil the moment.” And what is the banned word in Maggi’s art classes? It’s ‘sketch’, because it implies something casual.
“It is always a drawing whether it is on a tiny scrap of paper or on a sheet five feet by four.”
Maggi Hambling, ‘Touch: works on paper’ runs until January 29, 2017 at the British Museum in Room 90. Entrance is free.