Maggi Hambling's Certain (2017)
The word is scrawled in blood red cursive below a vaporous head of fluid black, white, and blue strokes. What began as an attempt to paint the early morning mist has been transformed into the contemplative lowered gaze of an elderly man. A wash of blue-grey hues remains in Maggi Hambling’s 2017 oil painting Certain, still masking patches of canvas whilst parting to leave others bare.
“It wasn’t working and it wasn’t working,” Hambling said of the initial stages of the painting, “and then I turned it upside-down and this image of my father just happened.”
The appearance of Hambling’s father Henry from the haze perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. He has been the subject of many of her portraits since the 1970s when she says painting brought the two of them together. He had just retired from his job at the bank when she gifted him a set of oil paints. He had never painted before and it took him five years to open them, but once he did the whole of Suffolk poured out.
“He had been very much in the background throughout my childhood. It was when he started to paint that we really became friends and began to move closer to each other. Drawing my father was a way of beginning to know him.”
Their connection grew through art until his death in 1998, whereafter Maggi continued to depict him from memory as she has done with many other friends (Some even shown laying in their coffins). Death, it seems, not killing her desire to paint them. In one image, this desire led her to draw her father laughing whilst she could still recollect of the sound. In Certain, though, he does not laugh. One eye sheds a small collection of drips, like a lonely raincloud on the mountainside. He stares downward and unfocussed. The mist behind hangs as directionless and opaque as a fading memory.
Hambling admits to grappling with knowing whether or not a piece is finished; whether things are at an end. One additional mark can lead to a few hundred more, unfolding in the same precarious way as the unfolding of life. At the top of the canvas hidden beneath a dense fog of white paint, upside-down letters begin to fade into sight. Perhaps from before Hambling had decided to rotate the canvas, from before her father had appeared to her on the surface. A word that shouldn’t breed a sense of hope but, here, barely legible amongst the inevitability of death and endings, does:
‘Certain’ was exhibited as part of Maggi Hambling’s ORIGINS at Gainborough’s House, Suffolk, 17 June to 29 October 2023.