Rebel with a cause: artist Maggi Hambling on ignoring critics, Soho dandies and her latest exhibition

She's the artist critics love to hate — but that doesn't bother Maggi Hambling. Joy Lo Dico talks to her about art, death and hanging out with Polly Harvey

“Shows are an inevitable hazard of being an artist,” says Maggi Hambling, pulling a 10 pack of Marlboro Menthols out of her pocket, for her second cigarette of our conversation. “You don’t ever get used to it. It is one thing to be in a studio, but then the piece of work comes out and has to look after itself. You can’t defend it like a mother tiger. It is out there. Some people love it, some people hate it, some people are indifferent.”

Hambling, a few months shy of 70, is sitting in the courtyard of Somerset House, while inside the final touches are being put on her new exhibition, War Requiem and Aftermath, which opens at the Inigo Rooms there today.

Not that she minds the people who hate it: she embraces them. Hambling’s biggest success at drawing a reaction was the four-metre high steel Scallop on Aldeburgh beach, unveiled in 2003 to peals of adoration and howls of horror. Private Eye even wrote asatirical column about it, as told by an Aldeburgh taxi driver.

Her last show, Walls of Water, at the National Gallery in the autumn, had mixed reviews. The Guardian accused Hambling of being a “celebrity” artist — “good on TV and rotten in the studio”. Her retort to such slammings is prepped. “I agree with Oscar Wilde when he said that wonderful thing: ‘When the critics are divided, the artist is at one with himself’.”

Hambling’s new show, a self-selected retrospective of work about war, death and memory, hosted by the Cultural Institute of King’s College, will draw its critics, too. The work is largely abstract, with pieces drawn from across three decades. As well as re-showing her Walls of Water canvases, there’s a homage to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, an Eighties canvas of women in hijabs — “biblical clothes” — taking aim with rocket launchers, and a room of recent work, gnarled driftwood, cast in bronze and then painted, a reanimation of the discarded and decaying, with new life. The only obvious nod to celebrity here is that one piece of wood with a gaping mouth-shaped hole is named after Amy Winehouse, one of Hambling’s favourite singers.

But you can see why the Guardian’s critic Jonathan Jones might have honed in on Hambling’s “celebrity” personality as more noteworthy than her art. Hambling has something of the rebel about her. The afternoon we meet, her hands are stuffed into blazer pockets and she is rocking back on the heels of her trainers with a rock star diffidence that draws people to her and gives her a cultish status. Names hang around her. The singer PJ Harvey was among the guests at her private view, held last night, after the two struck up a friendship at Somerset House while Harvey was recording there this week.

Anneka Rice boasts of being one of her art students at Morley College, the adult education college where she teaches a course. And Hambling shows me with some pride a shoot done at her Suffolk home for POP magazine, taken by fashionable photographer Jürgen Teller, two years ago, that is on display at the new show.

“We rather became friends after all this photography,” she says, with a little laugh. Her chickens get a portrait, as does she leaning over with a watering can. And there is one photograph of her, standing in the doorway of her hay barn studio glowering into the camera with one of her wave paintings behind her, that will become iconic. “I was coming out of that studio and he said ‘stop’, so I stopped. I thought I was smiling — but no. I find it quite difficult to smile for photographs.” 

Also hanging around her is the old reputation of the Colony Rooms, the Soho artists’ haunt from the late Forties until its closure seven years ago, where Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and, later, the Young British Artists hung out, as did Hambling.

In this show, there is a portrait of Sebastian Horsley, the late dandy of Soho who died of a drugs overdose five years ago. “I did the walk with the tarts of Soho,” Hambling reminds me of the colourful funeral. “He was an extraordinary creature, very complex, a wonderful writer — he was very Wildean, wasn’t he?” Also there is Henrietta Moraes, the wrecked boho who spent the last year of her life as Hambling’s lover and muse.

In this show is a partial sculpture of Moraes’ face and hair, Gorgon-like in a flat dish.

“Henrietta was one of the people I went on painting after she died, as with George Melly [another friend], as with my father. It is a habit of mine to go on making portraits of them, because if you’ve loved someone, the person goes on being alive inside us all. It is where artists are lucky, because they have a positive way of grieving. It is ironic, of course, because you are trying to make a portrait with as much life as possible of someone who is dead.”

What is noticeable, though, is that Hambling has retreated from the London scene —where much has died — back to her studio in Suffolk where she grew up. Though she has a studio in her home in Clapham, she doesn’t talk about it with the same enthusiasm as she talks about the sea. “Art began for me in Suffolk,” she says. “The mud feels right, the sky feels right, the whole sense of the day is not the same, the light is purer.”

It is from there, where she has been picking up driftwood from the beach or drawing inspiration from the waves for her Wall of Water series in oils, that her current drive comes. Is this a natural progression, from city to sea?

Tracey Emin has been back to draw the lifeboats at Margate, and Damien Hirst has been spending time in Mexico working on a waterlogged galleon.

“They are catching up,” she snorts. “They all end up in the sea.”

 She adds: “There seem to be quite a number of artists moving to Suffolk... you’re tripping over them.”

Not all are unwelcome. One is her “great friend” Sarah Lucas, one of the YBA generation, which also includes Hirst and Emin, and which Charles Saatchi bought by the lorry load. “Her work is the one I’ve always liked,” says Hambling generously. “We met at the Colony Rooms several years ago and we have the same birthday — one or two years in between” — she winks — “so we always have them together.”

Though she won’t mention anyone directly, Hambling thinks a number of the artists in the mainstream are a bit too cocksure. “We are supposed to be a seeker out of the truth and so there is so much doubt involved,” she says, and yet “some don’t seem to have any doubts about what they are doing.”

A rasping laugh emerges. “I mean there seem to be a lot of very confident people about.

“Artists worth their salt” says Hambling, as bait to her critics, “have always been on the edge.”

Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath is at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House ( from March 4 to May 31