A little before lunch, Maggi Hambling asks me, fatefully, how fragile is the little rectangle of pork rinds that comes with our main dish. Before he has had time to respond properly, she has bitten him and almost immediately is pulling something out of her mouth. She studies a pair of lower front teeth on her palm. “Oh God! My ‘Maryland bridge’, of which I was tremendously proud … “
Hambling responds to this little calamity in the way that I imagine he has responded to much greater calamities in the past: He takes a sip of wine, instinctively reaches for his pack of cigarettes, and laughs breathlessly and long. She randomly shoves her Maryland bridge into a pocket. “At least,” he says, “you have your opening line: ‘We had a very nice lunch during which half of my guest’s fucking teeth fell out …'”
We are in Snape’s Leggings, the art and shopping site a mile or two from Hambling’s house near the Suffolk coast. Hambling, who grew up nearby, is a lifelong patron of Snape, which was created by Benjamin Britten as the home for the Aldeburgh festival in 1967. His tribute to Britten, War Requiem, is represented here every year on his birthday; It now has a fascinating new installation in the old boiler room that recalls the debris of lost civilizations and the heartaches of climate change. Hambling has been a prominent figure in the area since he placed his Scallop sculpture on Aldeburgh Beach in 2003, dividing local opinion. When she walks with me to the restaurant, almost everyone recognizes her and nudges a colleague, but no one seems brave enough to stop her from taking a selfie. Photographer Eamonn MaCabe, a friend and neighbor, used to tell her to “look defiant” and at 75 she doesn’t need much encouragement to adopt that character.
At the beginning of the confinement he painted a self-portrait called Pissed off, in which her features emerge from a turbulent sea of brushstrokes (she calls the pandemic one of “God’s jokes”). When he picked me up from Saxmundham station in his car, in layers of black on the hottest day of the year, he had something of this expression on his face. He grunted a greeting and barely spoke as he led me down the lanes to his nearby home and studio, where the plan was to grab a coffee before heading out for lunch.
The clumsy one cannot maintain the brusqueness for long; once you have a cigarette in your hand, it is all mischief and warmth. The studio, an airy space filled with cigarette butts and specialty beer cans and filled with canvases and half-finished models for sculptures and plants, is like one of his marine paintings, a storm of energy in which forms, including the theirs, sometimes solve themselves. For the most part, he has lived and worked here since an unrequited but ardent admirer, Lady Gwatkin, unexpectedly left him her home and a few acres of adjacent water meadows in her will in 1994. Hambling’s partner of nearly 40 years, Tory Lawrence, once married to horseman Lord Oaksey, is sleeping next door. They share the cabin with Peggy, a little black one-eyed pug, who came from “pug rescue” on Hambling’s 75th birthday last year.
His routine is to get up at 5 or 6 in the morning and work in the morning – “They tighten the tendons, they summon the blood,” warns the sign on the study door – until lunchtime, when, in normal times, a lively company is required “to avoid doom and gloom.” “Some days,” says Hambling, “I have a whiskey at six o’clock quite satisfied with the day’s work and walk in the next morning and everything is terrible. Other days I have a whiskey at six thinking that everything is terrible and the next morning things don’t look too bad. Very often I fall asleep on the couch before the end of the second. Coronation Street. “
On the way to Snape in the car, I bring up the subject of his recently revealed statue. To Mary Wollstonecraft at Stoke Newington, which has been the subject of much shocking criticism. Anger has focused on the nakedness of the figure. Hambling is upset by the fact that the newspapers printed images of only the tiny female form rather than the full image, suggesting that she emerged from formless matter and struggle. She is deeply puzzled by feminists shy about female nudity. Still, a part of her is amused by the outrage.
Her great friend, novelist Paul Bailey – Pearl Barley as she calls him – sends her weekly poems, addressed to “Commander O’Hambling, The Radclyffe Hall World of Leather.” He was the first to alert her to a Channel 4 report on the “furor” in North London. “Two minutes later he called me and in his country voice said: ‘Good, good! This time you put your pussy between the pigeons! ‘”He laughs mischievously. “The next day I was leaving Waitrose in Saxmundham, and one of these great, cheerful Suffolk ladies came up to me and gave me a big smile and said, ‘I see I’ve made trouble again!’
The new River View restaurant in Snape is due to reopen the week after our visit, so we are, grandly, the only guests in the high-beamed loft room, where Hambling pampers herself like a favorite aunt. I wonder if they have put it off forever. “Oh,” she says, “there’s still the idea of me making one for Joe Orton. The mind is confused with what occurs to it. There are always good people who tell you that you have done something wrong. “
Since joining the eccentric East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, run by artist Lett Haines and her baronet boyfriend, 16-year-old plant man Cedric Morris, she has never been more interested in courting an educated opinion. His voice echoes through the airy wooden attic. “I came to London to go to Camberwell when I was 18,” he says. “Although I had convinced my mother to buy me a long black leather coat and had dyed my hair crimson, I was a virgin. It was terribly embarrassing to be a virgin at London art school in the 60s! So I made a list: older man, young man, woman. At the end of the first year, I went through my list and found that I liked women better. So that was it. “
For many years, Hambling was a nighttime fixture in Soho, along with his friends George Melly and Francis Bacon’s muse, Henrietta Moraes, Queen of the Colony Room, who became Hambling’s mistress in the last year of his life. Most of those partying buddies, including dandy Sebastian Horsley, who called her “mother,” are now dead. When I ask him if he misses that world, he remembers the last time he was in Soho with a friend and decided to go to a gay club for the good old days. “We went down the stairs to this place and it was quite extraordinary. It was full of women on computers drinking mineral water. Not even music. If that’s what things have come to, I thought, I’m not missing much. “
What he’s probably missed the most in the running, he suggests, is his Sunday morning tennis match, now happily again. He has been receiving advice from Andy Murray, who collects his work, and whose portrait he has recently done for the National Portrait Gallery. She is not sure if her advice is working. “It’s the kind of game where you throw a balloon and one of your opponents says, I don’t think I’ll get there, but I’m on my way.”
After the incident with the creak, Hambling is understandably wary of any other dental emergencies. He reads aloud the dessert option: “Dark Chocolate Mousse with Orange and Crisp Pistachio,” and shudders when he hears that last sentence. It reminds me of a joke his friend Max Wall used to tell about going out to dinner with a woman and realizing it was going to be a cheap date because when the woman smiled she saw that she had no teeth. “I blame my mother,” he says. “The dentist in Hadleigh, where we lived, used to like him, so he was always too embarrassed to take us.”
Driving back to the station, he points to the graveyard where a dozen unrelated Hamblings are buried, in which he has half an eye. He tells of his late father, a rather distant bank manager who became a painter in retirement, and whom he has painted over and over since his death. And about his hero Just William, who, whatever the problem, was always smiling. He pats his pocket for his missing teeth. “Laughing,” he says, looking at me with a violent look, “is a very serious matter.” And she leaves again.
Relic, an installation by Maggi Hambling and sound recorder Chris watson is at Snape Maltings, Suffolk until August 31. Maggi Hambling: Portraits opens in Thomas Brambilla, Bergamo, Italy in October
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism