The redoubtable Maggi Hambling was in characteristically forthright form at the dinner to celebrate her exhibition of new paintings at the Marlborough Fine Art gallery last night (28 February). “If they want me, they have to have the fucking cigarettes and that’s it!” she announced as—undeterred by rules, regulations and smoke alarms—she sparked up a Marlboro Light in front of a densely painted self portrait. The painting also has a cigarette emerging from the impasto. It was undoubtedly an evening of strong and excellent women with other art world guests including Hambling’s friend and fellow Suffolk dweller Sarah Lucas (who was also enjoying the lifting of the nicotine embargo); the artist Tory Lawrence; and the former British Council doyenne Andrea Rose among many others. They were also joined by the singer-songwriter extraordinaire PJ Harvey, whom Hambling befriended after admiring PJ’s guest editorship of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme three years ago.
Three great dames: PJ Harvey, Maggi Hambling and Tory Lawrence
A few eyebrows were raised as the Marlborough director John Erle-Drax kicked off his speech with Winston Churchill’s statement that a good speech should “be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest”. But goodwill was swiftly restored as he went on to applaud Hambling’s 21 years with the gallery, noting that the precious stone used to mark such an anniversary was the little-known Iolite. More approving noises emanated from the audience with the revelation from Mr E-D that this violet-blue gem is apparently “a stone of the muses, activating the visionary, creative side of the mind and accessing thoughts and ideas beyond the ordinary”. It was also reputedly used by the Vikings for navigation and—especially relevant to the hard-living Hambling—is credited with “supporting a stronger than normal constitution and enabling “one to consume alcohol without exhibiting the effects”.
Hambling then entered into the jovial fray and pointed to a potential alternative career in stand-up comedy by recounting a hilarious tale of her encounter with an art loving member of British Telecom’s customer services department. Nonetheless, despite all the high spirits, there was no doubt from anyone present that it was the paintings lining the surrounding walls that were the main attraction. Hambling confirmed that these turbulent, disturbingly beautiful works—representing such serious topical subjects as melting icecaps, trafficked refugees and the bombardment of Aleppo—had come into being through her profound sense of anger. “I paint from the heart,” she declared. “That’s really all I can say about my work.”