The artist Maggi Hambling CBE is a sometimes controversial figure, with strong views on issues like equality, smoking, and Scottish independence. She is also a leading British contemporary painter and sculptor, though reputedly she was ‘too risky’ for a commission to paint the late Queen Mother.
In 1980 she became the first Artist in Residence at the National Gallery, London. During her time there she produced a series of portraits of the comedian and actor Max Wall.Apart from portraits of figures such as AJP Taylor and Francis Bacon, her best-known works are perhaps her sculpture for Oscar Wilde in central London and Scallop, a 4-metre-high steel sculpture on Aldeburgh beach dedicated to Benjamin Britten.
In advance of her appearance at Omnibus on 17th February, we asked her about some aspects of her career as an artist and campaigner.
What goals do you still have? What drives you and your creativity?
One lives with doubt often despair, my “goal” always has been and still is to delve and dig deeper. My creativity? Madness, obsession, compulsion.
Your job as first artist in residence at the National Gallery was groundbreaking, but did you feel under any kind of pressure to produce a certain kind of work?
Certainly not. I am what I am in my work. My mother, who was a teacher, said I was the most obstinate child she’d ever come across and that remains. I don’t take orders.
What challenges did you experience? Did you experience any prejudice?
Why would there be any prejudice? Working in my studio with Rembrandt, Titian and Goya the other side of the door.
You’ve chosen some widely different subjects for portraits – Max Wall, Francis Bacon, AJP Taylor, Oscar Wilde – is there anything that links the people you have chosen to portray?
Max Wall for the shapes his body made and his mastery of his audience. Francis Bacon for the electric life-force he exuded. A J P Taylor for his ability to present history as if he was telling secrets, human stories. Oscar Wilde for his humanity.
The “link” is that I am moved by each one.
Did you feel any kind of special bond with Oscar Wilde when you were making your sculpture?
Oscar Wilde entered my life when his children’s stories were read to us at school when I was seven. His was a voice from another place unlike anything I’d heard before so there’s been a “bond” ever since. When he became my subject for the sculpture, I lived with him constantly – a portrait is like a passionate love affair.
How much do you think things have changed since the 1970’s in society? Have we won the battles against discrimination? Or are there more things to be achieved?
Terrible persecution in many countries which I hope Stonewall and other similar organisations can influence to the good. As for this country I think it is unlikely that we shall see a Gay Prime Minister in my lifetime – of course I may be wrong!
How do you feel about public art, especially in the light of the controversy regarding your Oscar Wilde memorial? Can it still have a place, even if it is essentially part of the establishment?
Some public art is great – Rodin’s ‘Burghers of Calais’ by the Houses of Parliament, Richard Serra’s ‘Fulcrum’ by Liverpool Street Station and Mark Wallinger’s ‘Ecce Homo’ –in my view the best ever on the fourth plinth. If something is controversial, it means it has some life to it because people respond – for or against is irrelevant.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring artist today?
Just do it!
All events will be held at 7.30pm.