Comment

Maggi Hambling's career proves we Brits prefer colourful eccentrics to serious artists

Maggi Hambling has stirred up controversy with her latest sculpture – but that's nothing new for the larger-than-life artist

 Maggi Hambling lights a cigarette beside her artwork Laughing
Playing with fire: Maggi Hambling lights up beside her artwork Laughing Credit: PA

The fiasco of Maggi Hambling’s monument to the 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – part silvery Soviet cosmonaut, part Argos catalogue ornament, unveiled earlier this week to derision – has reinforced something in my mind. I have never quite got my head around her ubiquity.

Her memorial to Oscar Wilde off Trafalgar Square – which presents the playwright’s bonce as a writhing ball of worms, precariously balanced on a sloping coffin of green granite – is bizarre and macabre. Infatuated with Francis Bacon (with whose muse, Henrietta Moraes, she had an affair), Hambling is forever tilting at, as she sees them, art’s Big Themes: life, sex, death.

“What else is there?” she might snap back, haughtily, puffing on a fag. Still, her mystical take on inspiration (that the work is in charge of her, rather than the other way around) sounds bogus, at least to me, while her paintings, with all their quivering marks and flurrying gestures, can seem indecisive. As for her recent portrait of Andy Murray scampering around a tennis court – let’s just say that’s a match she lost.

Why, then, the to-die-for public profile? (Last month, Hambling, swigging from a can of Special Brew, was the subject of an entertaining documentary on BBC Two.) That’s easy: because she belongs to a species of artist that we, in Britain, have evolved to love. Sure, their work – superficially shocking, but rarely radical – must strike a chord. In large part, though, we adore this type for their outspoken, energetic wit, which enlivens public discourse. Think of David Hockney, crusading against the smoking ban.

Who else falls into this category? The usual suspects: Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry. Newspapers adore them, because they provide great copy. Television cameras do, too, because they’re larger-than-life, funny – and unpredictable. Long before Emin, drunk, walked out of a live discussion on Channel 4, Hambling, a former habitué of Soho who has always cultivated a fierce aura of haute-bohemianism, was tickling audiences with outré on-screen antics, such as the time she wore a moustache on a quiz show.

Detail of Maggi Hambling's 'A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft' Credit: PA

In other words, Hambling is a performer as much as a painter, playing a time-honoured role. Call this what you will: clown, holy fool, rebel – someone uninhibited by convention, licensed to offer truths society otherwise ignores. Maybe we Brits like this type because we’re so buttoned up.

This isn’t to belittle Hambling, who, in 1980, became the first artist in residence at the National Gallery: Britain would be poorer without her. Rather, it’s how Hambling, over time, has come to see herself. One recent painting, a quasi-self-portrait, depicts a faintly desperate dancing bear. Endlessly delivering her honed, arch shtick, Hambling, too, is an old pro.

So, Maggi, follow Andy Warhol’s advice regarding negative notices, and weigh those reviews, don’t read them – relishing the fact that, at 75, you’re still in the limelight. Meanwhile, the committee responsible for the Wollstonecraft memorial in north London must rue their devil’s bargain for publicity by hiring a celebrity artist. We should all beware mistaking an artist’s personal charisma for that of their work.