For six-decades, Maggi Hambling has been a hugely adored British artist, not only for her unmatched talent in painting, but her unshakeable attitude. Some may be familiar with Maggi Hambling from Making Their Mark first aired in 1990 on BBC Two. In it, Maggi tells a nude male model to straighten his legs whilst she’s chain smoking and battling with a charcoal drawing of him. Her ability to mystify the divine-nature of the art-making process, believing it to be a way of channelling the spirit, was evident when I spoke to her.
Now, preparing for her upcoming exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, Maggi will present new and recent works on 26 March. Hambling's return to Asia after a near-fatal heart attack in 2022 marks a new chapter in her illustrious career. Her last exhibitions in Asia were major retrospectives, and this current showcase of new and recent works serves as a testament to her undying ability to create in the face of extreme adversity.
Firstly, I’d love to know how these questions are reaching you. Set the scene, where are you answering these questions from?
I’m in my London studio. It’s the one place in the house where there’s some order; the rest is chaos. There's a screen print of Derek Jarman, some drawings of Henrietta Moraes, a portrait of Sebastien Horsely, and some news things which I don’t want to talk about because it’s bad luck.
I’ve heard a lot about your daily routine in other interviews - has it changed at all recently?
I get up around 5am every day in the summer, 6am in winter, and I make a drawing in my sketchbook with my left hand with the stopper of an ink bottle. I use my left hand because what happens surprises me. It’s like a pianist doing the scales, in that I renew the sense of touch every morning. The right hand after all these years is full of tricks, so I leave it to the left now.
Do you still ritualistically draw the sea every morning?
I drew the sea for four or five years, but I don’t do that anymore. I think the sea is inside me now.
What do you mean by that? How does it feel to have the sea inside you?
(Laughs) Pretty wet! It all goes back to a sculpture named Henrietta Eating a Meringue and that movement between mouth, meringue and one becoming the other. It echoes the erosion of the Suffolk coast - the sea is a great mouth eating the land.
I want to pivot to your sculpture briefly, because I thought it interesting how many people mistook A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecroft for a sculpture of her likeness.
Of course it’s not of her! I didn’t want to make a historical likeness of Mary Wollstonecroft just so people could wander past and think nothing of it, in her old fashioned clothes and the rest of it - it limits people. It was very important that the statue didn’t have clothes in order to not limit anyone’s response to a fixed moment in time. A friend called me after it all got out and told me “you really have put the pussy amongst the pigeons this time!”
Could you elaborate on this distinction, of a sculpture of someone, or a sculpture for someone?
Well, for instance, when Amy Winehouse died I worked on a big portrait of her for two or three months before destroying it and painting a Wall of Water for her instead. Her mother stood in front of it in the National Gallery for a long while and said “you’ve got her movement, you’ve got her sound,” so it was of course a painting of her as well.
Many of your most famous and affective portraits have been of those close to you who have passed (your father and mother, Henrietta Moraes) How does your relationship to their memory change after a painting has been completed?
If someone you love dies, they go on living inside of you - that applies to everyone. I think I have this very positive way of grieving because I’m an artist, making portraits of the person as alive as possible even though they’ve died. My father died at the beginning of 1998 but two years ago I did a portrait of him from memory and these things just happen. Life dictates what I paint, if they die then I go on painting them. It's a question of being told by life what I should paint.
Do you find it easy to make the marks on the page of those subjects?
There is such a thing as the muse! Every so often the muse floats into one’s mind and visits the studio and then the painting paints itself. Those are the works that matter.
What signs suggest to you that one of your paintings is completed?
The person who gave the best answer to that was Andy Warhol. He just said: “when it’s sold!” It’s nothing to do with the money, it’s just away from the studio where you can’t fiddle with it. A painting can come alive and die a lot of times in its making and you’ve got to catch it while it’s still alive. It’s very tempting when it’s going well to tidy it up - then you kill it! It’s a very very odd business.
Looking at your Resurrection paintings, it makes me wonder whether your other subjects are being similarly immortalised by your painting. What is your take on the spirit’s ability to persist after death?
If you take a Titian, a Van Gogh, etc., it’s the way these paintings breathe. At once you know what it’s like to be alive and what it might be like to die. Great art involves itself in the territory of life and death as one. A viewer can only find something as moving as the artist has been moved by their subject in the first place. Oil paint makes the viewer feel like the work is being made in front of them - that’s the painting I aspire to. Sculpture too, it’s all the same business.
Is it ever tough to draw that spirit out?
Of course it’s tough! It’s bloody impossible! You’ve got to be in this state of total concentration. When I painted Dorothy Hodgkin, I went to her house and we spoke for a bit, then we went into her study and I realised I had to paint her there. So the painting became about her work; she wasn’t somebody to just sit on a chair, she was a great mind who worked.
Do you consider yourself a romantic painter? In any sense of the word.
I am a romantic. But I’m not an -ist. I’m not a portraitist, landscapist, pointilist, expressionist. People have these boxes they love to put others into in order to feel safe - it’s ridiculous. I see a passage that runs through my whole life of work that flows like water throughout my life, from my paintings on the sea, to walls of water, to animals, to the state of global warming. It defies a simple label to me.
If romantic painting is a return towards emotion and feeling through artistic practice, how do you find time for your emotions in today’s society?
I do feel very vulnerable before exhibitions. People ask me, “Why? You’ve done so many!” But if you have a good exhibition, then you have to make the next exhibition at least good or better. And it’s tough living up to your own expectations in that way.
What are your feelings going into this subsequent exhibition at the Pearl Lam Gallery?
I’m very excited for it. Last time I had an exhibition in Asia, it was Guangzhou or Beijing, everybody was calling me Einstein and kept asking me for selfies!
About to Kiss, featured in the upcoming exhibition, includes so many passionate reds and is charged with that potential romantic energy of its title. Tell me about this painting.
I get very cross when people say my paintings are abstract because this painting isn’t abstract for example. It’s about that delicious moment when you’re about to kiss  someone or someone is about to kiss you.
Do you feel, as I often do as a queer person, that your own runs contradictory to heterosexual narratives of romance?
No, not really. I know there have been queer shows and women’s shows, but I agree with Picasso when he said we’re all partly male and female. If someone’s going to an exhibition with a certain label on all of the artists, there is a certain veil on everyone’s heads as they go in I think.
The head of painting at Camberwell was queer when I was studying there and all the girls were treated with the same importance as the boys. Derek Jarman used to be a great friend of mine and he and I used to have a gay table at the canteen. We only used to let the most glamorous straight students sit with us! I often am more drawn to what someone does outside of who they’re attracted to though, queerness doesn’t define me.
Your Wall of Water paintings have a running theme of fluidity in their composition. What is the Wall of Water you’re referencing?
My art teacher at school said “The subject chooses you, you don’t choose the subject.” The storm that happened in Suffolk when I was young, with these enormous waves crashing down onto the pathetic sea wall was so beautiful yet so terrifying. The feeling of that storm is always knocking around somewhere inside me and every so often it comes out again.
You talk about revisiting the night as well for this exhibition. Are the storm and the night parallel influences for you?
When I was fourteen, I did nothing but flick paint at the Biology teacher who was invigilating my art exam. At twenty-past three I realised in ten minutes I needed to hand in a painting, so I just did one quickly. When the results came out I was amazed to find out I had come top of the class, so I thought I should look into it. I stayed up until two in the morning trying to paint the night’s sky the same night. I brought all of my attempts into school the next day and the whole class were laughing at what I had made. The art teacher came in, I told her what happened and she said “It must be water off a duck’s back. You are your own best critic. Don’t take any notice about what anyone says about your work!” which was a great thing to say to someone at fourteen. So, when I first became an artist I painted the night’s sky, and I probably always come back to it, just like I do with that vision of the storm.