When the first statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft—pioneering feminist, patron saint of loudmouthed women—finally went up in a park in North London, in the fall of 2020, some two hundred years after her death, the public reaction was swift and extreme. Critics objected to the monument’s swirling, amorphous base and its silvery color. Mostly, they disliked the small sculpted woman at the statue’s top, and her attire: she had none. “Was a tiny, silver, ripped nude really the correct way to honour ‘the mother of feminism’?” a writer for the Guardian asked. “Admirers like me never expected to be left contemplating whether she had a full bush.” On Twitter, the writer Caitlin Moran joked that the streets would soon be full of “statues depicting John Locke’s shiny testicles,” and the historian Simon Schama wrote that he had “always wanted a fine monument to Wollstonecraft. This isn’t it.” Still, when was the last time that Wollstonecraft, the author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” went viral?
In the months after the unveiling, the artist behind the work, Maggi Hambling, gave interviews explaining that the statue was not meant to be a literal depiction of Wollstonecraft, but, rather, as one inscription on its plinth reads, “for Mary Wollstonecraft.” (Another inscription: “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”) The figure at the top depicted an “everywoman,” she said. “What sort of surprised me was the objection to the naked figure,” she told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. In an interview in the Guardian, she argued, “There are plenty of schlongs honouring men in art.” “The figure had to be nude because clothes define people,” she explained. “Put someone in country tweeds and they become horsey. Put someone in period dress and they become part of history. I didn’t want to do that to her.”
That hasn’t stopped critics from making their own sartorial additions. I visited the statue shortly after it went up on a village-like square, called Newington Green, where Wollstonecraft briefly lived and where she founded a school for girls, in 1784. A small group had gathered around the naked figure. Someone had dressed her up in a silver toga-like garment and a knit cap. “I had to take the telephone off the hook when that Wollstonecraft thing blew up,” Hambling, who is seventy-six, later told me. “I just thought, Let them get on with it. Let them fight it out.”
Since at least the nineteen-eighties, Hambling, one of Britain’s most prolific and controversial artists, has been letting the public fight it out over her work. (She is fond of quoting Oscar Wilde’s maxim, “When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.”) In her youth, she dressed in top hats and feather boas for outlandish cabaret nights, and later fell in love with Francis Bacon’s longtime muse, Henrietta Moraes, the Queen of Soho. Over the years, from her studios in London and Suffolk, where she lives with her longtime partner, the artist Tory Lawrence, Hambling has embraced, and occasionally played up, a public persona as both a national treasure and a queer icon—an emissary from old Soho and the swinging sixties. Renowned as a portraitist, she has paved a path for a wide swath of younger British artists, including Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, and Cecily Brown, though she remains difficult to categorize. Her work “doesn’t fit that easily into any given period or set of styles or school,” the art critic and novelist James Cahill told me. “In some ways, I think she’s always been something of an outsider.” Brown, whom Hambling tutored, told me, “She’s always been very uncensored, and not really worried about what people thought. She’s a kind of maverick, really.”
In person, Hambling is performative and witty, with wild gray curls and a cap on a front tooth in a shade she describes as Yves Klein blue. For a long time, she had a rule that she could not be photographed without a cigarette and a scowl. This spring, Hambling had her first solo show in New York, “Maggi Hambling: Real Time,” at the Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea. In September, she will have another show in Suffolk. In Chelsea, she oversaw the installation of twenty-nine oil paintings from the last decade or so, including a series of enormous canvases depicting the violent crashing of waves entitled “Wall of Water.” Other works, from a series called “Edge” and a collection about animals in captivity, express her rage over climate change and “the way we’re fucking up the world,” she told me. Just before the opening, however, she suffered a heart attack. Her one-week trip turned into several weeks in a hospital bed. When I spoke with her recently, she was in a wry and reflective mood, musing on how her work might change. “We’ll have to see what happens now Madame Death has stepped in,” she said.
Hambling was born in 1945 in Suffolk, England, the youngest of three siblings. Her father was a bank teller and, in later life, a painter, and her mother was a teacher. Hambling has described herself during her school days as a “gang-leader and a clown,” obsessed with Oscar Wilde and in love with her biology teacher. In art class, for almost the entirety of an exam, as she has written, she did “nothing but flick paint at people and draw attention to myself,” and then unexpectedly aced the test. She began to dream of being an artist, and stayed up late painting the night sky out of her bedroom window. When other students made fun of her new hobby, a favorite teacher, Yvonne Drewry, told her to brush it off. “She said it has to be water off a duck’s back,” Hambling told me. Drewry allowed Hambling to paint in the fields around her house during a school holiday. She taught her how to smoke a cigarette to dispel the insects, the start of a lifelong habit.
At fifteen, Hambling took her oil paintings to the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, an eccentric art school that Lucian Freud had attended. The school, which was not far from her home, was housed in a large sixteenth-century building known as Benton End, and run by the artists Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines. She was so nervous at first that she sat in a ditch outside the school and painted the ditch. “It was known as ‘the artists’ house,’ and for every vice under the sun,” Hambling told me. “I don’t know if that was part of the attraction.” As a student, she worked in the kitchen with Lett-Haines, who became a mentor. He told her, “If you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to make your work your best friend. You can go to it if you’re feeling sad, you’re feeling bored, you’re feeling tired, you’re feeling randy. Whatever you’re feeling, go to your work and have a conversation with it.”
Hambling arrived in London in the summer of 1964. She was almost nineteen, and still a virgin, she has said, but not for long. She became involved with a series of men and women, lived in a shared house dubbed the Queers Castle, and knocked about the Gateways Club, a legendary lesbian night club, where she claims she was once banned for suggestive dancing. She attended Camberwell College of Arts and the Slade School of Fine Art, and hung around with the artists David Hockney, Bridget Riley, and Derek Jarman. In 1969, she visited New York for a few months on a travel grant and went to Woodstock and a Nina Simone concert. When she returned, she began painting portraits of people she’d noticed in pubs—“good places in which to observe,” she says in “Maggi Hambling the Works: And Conversations with Andrew Lambirth”—and the arthritic hands of her neighbor Frances Rose. These are tender, slightly surreal paintings, with undercurrents of loneliness. She was with Rose when she died, and later painted a portrait from memory. “It was the first time I had been present at someone’s death and I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
When fame came, Hambling had fun with it. In 1980, she was chosen as the first artist-in-residence at London’s National Gallery and painted a security guard. She worked in a studio lined with tinfoil so that she could smoke. As a panelist on the television show “Gallery,” in which contestants guessed the names of famous art works, she wore a bow tie and, once, a mustache. In 1998, a sculpture of Hambling’s honoring Oscar Wilde was installed in central London, across from Charing Cross station. Titled “A Conversation with Oscar Wilde,” it takes the shape of a long granite sarcophagus, which doubles as a public bench. Wilde’s head and one of his arms stick out of the top. He’s holding a cigarette, looking amiable. “You could sit and have a chat with him,” Hambling told me. The piece is inscribed with the quotation, from Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”