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George always exhibition tour transcript

Artist Maggi Hambling gives a guided tour of the exhibition George always at the Walker Art Gallery, explaining the stories behind her portraits of her great friend, the late George Melly.

Maggi Hambling: Hello I’m Maggi Hambling and I’m going to have a bit of a walk around the Walker with these pictures of George.

My triple portrait of George done in 1998 is on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. He appears three times, in the centre George is singing, in the bottom right hand corner George is looking very very serious in the robes of Liverpool John Moores University. He was made an honorary fellow and he tells me that the robes were in fact bright green when he was awarded them but in his wardrobe they turned to these shades of russet. Anyway the joke about George in the robes is underneath he is wearing a rather vulgar bright yellow sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. Normally people are wearing shirts and ties under the robes so it’s a bit of subversion there. In the left hand figure George appears in drag as Bessie Smith, his hero. He said that I had flattered his calf because a bit of leg is showing of Bessie underneath her feathers and her frills in her high heeled shoe, and the feathers in her head. George said I was very good at feathers and if I’d lived at the time of the Renaissance then Rubens or someone would have sent up the road; “Go and fetch Maggie to come and do the feathers”.  He particularly admired my painting of feathers [laughs].

The whole composition is based on the wonderful swirl of George’s stomach. George’s stomach always seemed to arrive at my house about half an hour before the rest of him. So the curl of Bessie’s stomach, if you like, becoming the singer in the centre, George’s central stomach as he is the singer, and then his stomach coming out of the top of his jeans in the bottom right hand corner ends that kind of rhythm. George himself likened the painting to a painting of mine called the ‘Scent of the Bull’s Head’, a painting of a bullfight in which the head of the bull gradually descends from the top left hand corner down as it hits the dust of the bullring at the bottom right. I think it’s actually a rather more joyful celebration of George than the death of a bull.

The next things chronologically in the exhibition are a group of 12 drawings which were reproduced in George’s last book ‘Slowing Down’. It was his idea that I should make some drawings of him to be in the book and when he arrived that summer’s day he looked exactly like a car boot sale. He was wearing a fishing hat on top of a fedora hat. He was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans again but carrying one of those cases you put suits in over his shoulder and a fishing rod and a bottle of Irish whiskey, a lot of fishing equipment and other bits of luggage. He really did look quite extraordinary. All the drawings were done in my studio with, for instance, ‘George fishing’, the end of the line being attached to my dustbin to make the rod curve. He went through a lot of different changes in a lot of activities so we got everything happening in this great variety of ways. These were drawn from life in one day. George drank thoughout the day and I didn’t have a drop but I was exhausted for two days after that lot.

Chronologically the next one is a little tiny painting, ‘George joking’, when he came to lunch with me for the last time about six weeks before he died. He behaved really like the Queen Mother, he was very very grand and made orders of exactly what he like in the next five minutes, or the last five minutes and the next half an hour. He was suffering very badly from cancer but he’d refused to be treated because he wanted to go on performing till the end and he made a performance, he was still performing. So this is a little painting that I felt I had to do from memory the next morning after the lunch, very quick, very direct from just memory of George telling one of his jokes. By now he has a slightly thinner face because of the cancer eating into him, but still jokes, still laughing.

Even nearer his death, this is about 3 weeks before he died, I visited him at home. He was wearing one of his frocks, an exotic green kaftan which slipped about all over the place as he moved with those strange arm movements that people who are lying down, but are still very alive in certain ways, make, conducting strange music. He was of course still smoking, a smoker till the end and he had grown a beard, a rather terrible Pre-Raphaelite beard, which he thought was most the suitable for his forthcoming starring role in the film of Christ. He was performing to the end and describing himself as going to play Christ in a new film that was coming out of the life of Christ. Being rather slow I didn’t realise until about a couple of months later of course he was absolutely right. He did die three weeks after this painting was begun and he knew he was going to die and he knew he was going to meet his father in heaven so of course he was going to play Christ, but I was so slow I didn’t realise that. There he was, running around, didn’t want any kind of interruption, just determined to say what was going to happen next. It was a performance to the last and the whisky was by his bed.

Then there’s a wave, I do paint the sea. The whole of my life has been painting the sea when I’m in Suffolk and painting George when I’m in London but of course the two things meet a lot of the time because I’m the same person. I painted this evening wave dying, light dying, colours of the sunset going down, in honour of George really. A wave breaking at the end of the day for George. The rhythms of this painting are very close to the rhythms of George writhing about on the bed, so that’s why they’re hung next to each other. It of course contains George’s exotic colours.

‘George Always I’, which is the painting that’s on the poster and everything else for this exhibition. The conception of it came to me several years ago when I was standing in the Whitney Museum in New York. Suddenly, looking at a painting, I can’t remember which one, I suddenly conceived the idea of making a painting of George in which he appeared in the painting as simply a bare piece of white canvas. Everything else was very busy and active in the painting but George was going to appear simply as a shape. After he died this was the first painting attempted in that way and most of the face of ‘George Always I’ is the bare white canvas, so it has this ghostly element. Like all these paintings done after his death it’s about his absence and yet his presence because of the thing of still feeling people are alive if you love them very much, even though they died they’re still inside you.

So ‘George Always’, which is everywhere about the place, that was the first of them and ‘George Always II’, which is a back view of George, he liked the phrase ‘leaving the building’. He’s leaving either the building or the stage or the earth. He still has his whisky and his cigarette and his hat on. It’s a particularly good portrait of his bottom, he was very proud of his bottom because to the last he still had the tight bottom of a young Black man. So that is the back of George disappearing wherever he’s going, but it’s quite joyful.

George was a great and keen fisherman, so George is either already in heaven or about to be in heaven in this painting but anyway he’s encountering a leaping fish. The gold paint infers that it’s a sort of a mock-religious painting if you like, if you think of a lot of old paintings with a lot of use of gold paint. George possibly is already there, encountering a marvellously large fish that he’s just caught.

There’s this next, a screenprint that’s derived from the singing figure in the National Portrait Gallery portrait which I think has got a bit of very good movement about it. Movement’s very important in my paintings.

The next painting we’re looking at is a painting that began as George singing and became ‘Ghost of George singing’, so there’s an ambiguity of whether he’s alive or dead, whether he’s a ghost or still in front of us. Again his stomach is a vast part of this and I’m very proud of the tie that I’ve invented in this painting. I was thinking of patenting it because it’s a fish, to celebrate his fishing, and it has two tails. I think I could make quite a lot of money by inventing a tie with two tails.

Anyway that’s George singing and the next one as it happens, because one hangs an exhibition to make it visually the best you can make it, so this is not chronological at all but suddenly we’ve come to the little painting of George dead. Although I made drawings of my father in his coffin, I’d already made a lot of drawings of my mother in her coffin and made paintings from it and for my father I drew him in a coffin and made paintings, and with Henrietta, her in the coffin, made paintings, I didn’t actually see George in the coffin so I imagined George in his coffin. He’s still wearing his hat, he still has the terrible Jesus beard and he does actually look quite happy.

There’s some big, big waterfalls now, a triptych of waterfalls 9 feet tall by 3 feet wide each of them. On the left is the sunrise, the centre is high noon and on the right is the sunset. I haven’t actually seen any waterfalls ever. I have dreamt of waterfalls and they were in contrast obviously formally to my sea pictures, most of which are horizontal as the sea is a horizontal thing and a waterfall is a vertical thing. So they were an exciting to start to do and what I found was that during this time of painting George the colours of George that are one of the things I really miss about George is the exotic nature of the colours of the suits he wore, the hats he wore, the absurd if you like but gorgeous things he wore. He was a man of great colour and the colour kind of crept across the studio floor into these paintings.

There’s a little painting of George having a laugh with God. I can’t believe God doesn’t laugh and laughter was a big thing that drew us together in the first place. He used to practise his jokes on me, which was an enormous honour of course. He’d try them out on the telephone and if I didn’t laugh he wouldn’t use them. This of course as you can imagine got a lot more difficult as he got deafer because he had to ask me if I was laughing because he couldn’t hear whether I was or not. Anyway, that is George having a laugh and then there’s a last drink before heaven. There George is sitting very grandly on a throne with a green hill far away, bit of a reference to those terrible Pre-Raphaelites that he loved so much, I think largely from seeing them in this gallery when he was a boy. I can’t stand them but there we are, little tribute to the Pre-Raphaelites, green hill far away behind him. He’s on the outskirts of heaven on a throne with his cigarette of course and drink, having a nice glass of Irish whiskey and a nude is passing, quite a sexy nude in fishnets. He looks very happy with the whole set up.

This is a big, big portrait now of ‘Good time George’, one of the largest heads I’ve ever painted. I’m very pleased with it, I think it has, a lot of people have said it has the movement of my wave pictures going through it and I’m very pleased about that. In his left eye where he wore he eyepatch although he didn’t need it towards the end of his life he like the kind of piratical image of wearing an eyepatch so he kept it on even though he didn’t need it to perform in. In a portrait his long time lover Squeaky appears in the left hand eye where the eyepatch is. So it’s a portraits on many different levels if you like, I don’t like that word, but there are fish playing around at the top, there are a pair of tits, some grapes, a little self portrait of me in the top right hand corner, smoke of course curling up from the bottom left hand corner. I think there’s a bit of sadness in that his left eye, the eye that for us is on the right but for him is his left, it’s a sort of contrast of all this, well, good time, that’s what he was about on the stage. He made people feel better. He came on the stage, his opening number was ‘Good time George’, we’re going to have a good time, and that’s what he made people feel. So it’s about that and it’s about the whole thing of people who make you laugh really essentially being very, very, very sad people.

The ‘George’s Surrealist lecture’ picture is quite a funny picture, its made people laugh, which pleases me a lot. It came directly from a dream, there’s a big stately home garden and all the highest echelons of the art world were there and suddenly everybody began to run towards this hedge where George was because he was going to give his Surrealist lecture. In my dream he began his Surrealist lecture by the hedge in a wheelchair but I didn’t think the wheelchair was suitable for the paintings so he’s standing there, rather reminiscent of one of Velasquez’s dwarves actually. There’s a cormorant coming into the top of the picture and nude by his right knee and he’s kicking a baby swan out of the way with his right foot. He has an angel’s wing, I think because of his comment about how good I was at feathers really, and he’s got a number of hands, which often appears in my work. I think it’s a kind of mad picture but I think it works.

There’s another one, it’s again George not quite in heaven, he’s only inspecting heaven. He has his cigarette of course and his glass of whiskey. For someone like me who gave up smoking four years ago it’s a very masochistic thing to have painted George for a year and a half, always with a cigarette.

This is quite a recent painting. This is ‘George with laughing mask’, it’s a mask I bought some while ago because it appears to be laughing and of course it does in profile very much resemble George. So George is having a kind of conversation with this laughing mask and I hope people can see the resemblance between George and the laughing mask. He looks quite happy.

I think the next one is a very happy painting, it’s George’s ghost dancing. Because the way he moved on stage was marvellous, he could be very, very funny and actually rather sexy. Apparently it influenced a young Mick Jagger who saw him on the stage. This combination of the strange movement, an enormous sense of rhythm of course and the camp, the whole thing together was quite extraordinary and unlike anyone else. This is a celebration of George’s ghost again, the white canvas showing through the paint of where he is, and everything cluttered around him, everything very, very busy. At the bottom a bottle of wine, a prawn, a mask of Bessie Smith, the moon, a bat for some reason just happened. Bottles, bits of food. He never ever ate any vegetables. He only liked the meat and the pudding, never a vegetable touched his lips. And of course the cigarette and the whiskey.