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Sea, sand and orgasmic waves - the work of Maggi Hambling

— June 2011

Associated media

Maggi Hambling, April wave breaking, oil on canvas, 2009 (153 x 244 cm)

Maggi Hambling talks to Sue Ward about the sea, waves and Scallop

One windswept evening last year I went to hear Maggi Hambling interviewed by Radio 4’s Martha Kearney, in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. As wine was dispensed afterwards, and members of the audience milled around I listened to some of the comments. Several people mentioned how witty Hambling was, and even those who had asked difficult questions about her Scallop sculpture seemed to leave the hall, if not charmed, at least more resigned. I had attended this discussion hoping to hear more of how the people of Aldeburgh were feeling in 2010 about this iconic work, which since being unveiled in 2003 has attracted considerable controversy. Feelings ran so high with some residents they were even adamant that the work that won her the 2005 Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture should be moved from its site on the shingle beach facing the North Sea.The East Anglian Daily Times even conducted a poll for and against keeping the 15feet high structure (2,163 to 738 in favour),Hambling herself has always been a controversial figure. When she received her OBE from Prince Charles in 1995, he needed no prompting as to who she was, and leant forward to ask her if she was behaving herself. She is delighted that she received the award for her work -- her services to art. Last year she was created CBE.  

The Scallop and the Sea

For Hambling the sea is a totally absorbing subject, with much of her earlier work leading her to where she is now. Born and bred in Suffolk, at her local school, Amberfield, the art mistress Yvonne Drury realised she had special artistic talent. Another strong influence in her early development was Arthur Lett-Haines who, together with Cedric Morris, ran the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, Benton End, at Hadleigh, Suffolk, which she also attended from the age of 15. This was followed by the Ipswich School of Art in 1962–4.Lett said that she had to treat her work like her best friend to which she could go and talk, however she was feeling; he also emphasised that there is no point in being an artist unless you have imagination. She has followed this advice especially in her relationship with the sea, to which she regularly talks during her early morning sojourns on the beach.

Leaving Suffolk, Hambling attended Camberwell School of Art, then the Slade. Attending these two schools in London during the late 1960s and early ’70s gave her the time to develop; altogether, she was an art student for seven years. She believes very strongly that it is important that students have the time to develop and also to draw: ‘Drawing is the bedrock of everything’. She returns to London every week to give a drawing class.

I talked to Hambling in her studio at the rear of her Suffolk cottage. She still has family members living in the county. The studio is a large light and airy space, her dog Lux wanders around, and the walls are large enough to hold her large seascapes. It is a very peaceful place.She evidently loves Suffolk and its coast: ‘It seems to be right here. The ground under your feet, the air you breathe’.  She says she is aware of the sense of the day and time here, more so than in London.

‘As a child I would be taken to this part of the coast. I actually think that the Scallop grew out of watching a firework display on Aldeburgh beach aged seven, although you can never be sure. This bit of the sea is special to me. As I get older I identify with the shore, the shingle, the sea eroding our edges of the country, as time erodes life; the inevitability of it all. I listen to the sea. I am alone with it early in the morning. Scallop was conceived to be somewhere to go to be alone with the sea, although these days it is so covered with people no one can be alone there very often.’  

In fact Scallop, a 15-feet-high, six-and-a-half-ton stainless steel structure, is now so much part of the Aldeburgh scene it is to be found adorning tea towels, and postcards and souvenirs of Suffolk and Aldeburgh. The phrase ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ (from  Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes) is pierced through the steel, to be read against the sky, while the work itself  gives rise to images of wings in flight, fish and waves.

As soon as it was unveiled, however, it was the subject of a raging national debate about the purpose of art in public spaces. Maggi Hambling thinks that Scallop aroused so much controversy because whereas a painting contains its own space, a sculpture occupies your space and, when the space is public, some people will object. Scallop celebrates the life of Britten and this arouses opposition in some quarters of Aldeburgh, mainly because Britten was a conscientious objector during the war and a homosexual.  Hambling said to me: ‘What is an icon for some is an eyesore for others’.  

Hambling has been painting the sea seriously since November 2002. She was working on a small portrait of a London beggar, painted from memory:

‘I had driven to the beach early in the morning and there was a huge storm. I returned to the studio and looked out of the window at the wind crashing through the trees on the water meadows as it had through the waves on the beach. I knew that was what was inside me, and I started painting my memory of what I had seen that morning, actually on the same canvas on top of the portrait of the beggar.’

This was the first of her series ‘North Sea Paintings’.

Now at five every morning, early enough for all the three beaches she regularly visits to be deserted, she draws, and listens to the waves. Her seascapes are wild and sublime. She wants to:

‘make the waves crash in front of me on the canvas, and with a bit of luck they crash for other people. The physicality of the paint is very important to me and the fact that it’s done with the human hand is a crucial part of it. To me there is nothing like oil paint, and last year I made some sculptures of waves as well. Sometimes when I have been working on a painting I realise that there is a sculpture in it as well.

‘Most people know the life and death feeling when they look at the sea, it is so huge. Water is a metaphor for life. A wave approaches, then becomes solid before it dissolves, that’s pretty sexy. Someone once asked me why I keep painting waves and I replied I go on painting them because they are orgasms!  The sea has so much going for it.

‘You can shut your eyes and waves can sound like laughter or they can be terrifying. Aeschylus likened the breaking of waves to “innumerable laughterings”, or they can be terrifying. The Sea can represent your happiest moments and your darkest moments’.

Hambling’s book The  Aldeburgh Scallop with a foreword by Stephen Fry is one of six books to be shortlisted for the New Angle Prize for literature this year. Fry states in his introduction:

‘Maggi Hambling’s body of work is one of the great contemporary achievements of British art. She belongs to no school but the universal, and to no trend but the individual and authentic…if there is one quality that may be singled out in so restlessly searching and varied an artist, it is energy. Life, humour, wit and a fiercely absolute commitment to the moment charge her works’.

This title tells the fascinating story of the sculpture’s conception, official acceptance and construction, and the row that erupted when it was finally unveiled. It is full of personal anecdotes and history and gives you a witty and truthful account of the creative process, with plenty of anecdote and Hambling’s own history thrown in.

The Aldeburgh Scallop by Maggi Hambling, Foreword by Stephen Fry is published by Full Circle Editions £20.00. ISBN 978-0956186942


Sue Ward

Media credit: © The artist. Photograph Douglas Atfield

Background info

‘ a period when many artists try to be sexy, and only end up being commercial and competitive, she’s the real thing. For she knows backwards how the core of desire is vulnerability’ John Berger
Maggi Hambling was the first Artist in Residence at the National Gallery in 1980. The Art Newspaper once described her as the female Bacon and her work is seen as controversial, partly because she likes to paint some of those sitters to whom she was very close, in death as well as in life. She has works in the National Gallery, The British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, and has exhibited in many other public collections both in the UK and abroad. Maggi Hambling had various exhibitions on the Sea in 2009 and 2010. Her exhibition ‘The Sea’ was held at The Lowry, Salford in 2009; in 2010 the exhibition ‘The Wave’ was held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and ‘New Sea Sculpture’ was at Marlborough Fine Art, London.
Maggi Hambling’s first work in a new series, ‘Wall of Water’, will be on display at Snape Maltings for the Aldeburgh Festival in June.
Her  exhibition ‘Paintings and Prints’ runs from 23 September to 22 October at The Stables Gallery at the Diss Corn Hall, St Nicholas Street, IP22 4LB. The exhibition will include selected paintings and her recent series of ‘North Sea Etchings’.
Maggi Hambling will be in conversation with broadcaster and presenter, Martha Kearney, on 23 September at 8pm at the Corn Hall. Diss. Tickets from 01379 652241 or
For more information please see

Editor's notes

Parts of this interview were previously published in ‘Making the Waves Crash: A Conversation with Maggi Hambling’ by Sue Ward in The Art Book 17 (2), published by Wiley Blackwell and the Association of Art Historians.

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