Yahoo! Big Idea Chair: Maggi's mantra

Maggi Hambling, one of today's most celebrated British artists, takes a revealing look at her work in the Yahoo! Big Idea Chair.

On beginnings

I was born in 1945 in Sudbury, Suffolk. My father was a bank clerk, my mother a teacher. One sister and one brother arrived ... and then I came along a decade later. My first taste of celebrity came when my sister Ann entered me - without my mother's knowledge - for some local baby shows. Impeccably turned out, I was the plumpest and blondest ... and so I always won. There was half a crown in it for her every time.

On discovering art

Art came into my life completely by surprise at the age of 14. There was an art exam at school and I did nothing but flick paint at people and generally draw attention to myself because I was deeply in love with the biology teacher, who was invigilating. I suddenly noticed we had ten minutes left to hand in our paintings. So in a carefree fashion I produced one of a woman lying on a chaise longue with a half-open book she wasn't looking at because she was too lazy to read. When the results arrived, I came top. After that I began to try; I began to take it seriously. I can remember staying up until two or three in the morning painting the night sky from my bedroom window. I also remember drawing from my imagination a highly effeminate vicar leading a troop of choirboys through a graveyard. I got a kick out of my art teacher's disapproval of the image and realised that art could be subversive, just like me.

On art school

In the summer of 1962, I abandoned my A-levels and left school, denying the authorities the chance to expel me. I began studying at Ipswich Art School, moving later to Camberwell then the Slade School of Fine Art. I was an art student for seven years, in the wonderful days of student grants before Thatcher did her best to close down every fine-art department in the country and Blair turned student grants into student loans. In 1967, between Camberwell and the Slade, I had my first show at the Hadleigh Gallery, above a chemist's shop. It was my first experience of a sellout: drawings sold for £1, the most expensive painting for £16 and, for once, I didn't need a holiday job; I could just go on working.

On getting ideas

Where's best? Everywhere, I'm never on holiday and as you get older every moment counts. Inspiration can come in London or Suffolk. I have ideas in the middle of the night, after a dream, after a couple of drinks. People say I'm over the top and flamboyant, but in fact I spend hours and hours alone in my studios. Work travels with me so that something begun in Suffolk might be finished in London. I do the same thing every morning. I get up early - 5 o'clock in the summer, 6 o'clock in the winter and I work. My best energy happens early in the morning. Work now, wash later - that's a sensible motto.

On sculpture

I began to sculpt in 1993. Scallop (Hambling's celebration of Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk, unveiled in 2003) came to me like a gift. As a child you hold a shell to your ear to listen to the sounds of the sea, and that was Scallop's simple beginning; an ancient symbol of pilgrimage and the sea, at a place that had inspired Britten's music.

I fiddled around a bit in a sketchbook, but things really only began when I started to make a maquette, breaking several scallop shells in the process. The idea is that Scallop is in conver- sation with the sea and it, in turn, is supposed to invite people to sit and contemplate the sea and climb all over and under it. The people who have vandalised it have done so in an incredibly boring way - "happy Easter", "tin can", "move it" and so on. As I'm allergic to shellfish, it's quite odd I spent two years making a fucking giant scallop!

On painting

As a junior painter I was only too pleased to have my work compared to Francis Bacon's. I admired his style, the way he applied paint and his confrontational subject matter.

On painting Michael Jackson

I was in the middle of something else when suddenly the papers were dripping with photographs of Jackson's arrest. I found one particular image so moving; it became the source of the figure on the left in my portrait.

On smoking

I'm always photographed with a fag in my hand. Always - just to show support for smokers. I'm a libertarian. But I gave up smoking just before I turned 59 in October 2004, as my father did before me - and he lasted until 96. Giving up was bloody hard, like losing my best friend; I took to my bed for two weeks. Turning 60 was pretty traumatic too, but I bought myself a 1979 silver Bentley and felt a lot better.

On advertising

Several years ago, there was an enormous billboard in Cromwell Road. It had a completely black flat surface but a four-door saloon car protruded from the centre. In the bottom corner in small type was the wording "Araldite - magic". And the two little boys on the Vauxhall Zafira ad ... "New car, new house. Someone's doin' all right ..." I love those ones. I'd be marvellous as a voiceover; I'd rival Brian Sewell, in case anyone's listening.

On the internet

I'm a complete Luddite, I loathe technology. I really don't know one end of an internet from the other. I wouldn't touch a computer, I believe they go wrong all the time and eat things. That computer art malarkey didn't last long, did it? Seriously, it upsets me when people say they've "seen" a Rembrandt on the internet. There's simply no comparison between a jpeg and a Rembrandt in the flesh.

On the big idea

Impossible to define.

On a big idea in art

In many of my paintings there's the same rich blue; Yves Klein blue or, to give it its proper name, French Ultramarine. To me it's infinity - that's a big idea.

On a big idea for the future in any field

No more war. That will never happen, of course, because human nature doesn't change and never will.

- Maggi Hambling has a lot of time for Arts & Business, the connecting point for the business and arts communities for nearly 30 years ( Maggi Hambling The Works is available from Unicorn Press.

- The Yahoo! Big Idea Chair shines a spotlight on people and companies whose creative work is truly remarkable. See for more details.


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