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Maggi Hambling's sea paintings & the Aldeburgh Scallop
By Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk


Maggi Hambling returns to the controversial Scallop to discuss her new work

Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling's Scallop sculpture in Aldeburgh is one of the most famous in Britain.

Her work with the coast is continuing with her North Sea paintings - portraying her feelings of the pull of the waves and of death.

"The older I get I identify with the land which is being eroded," she said. "The sea is like time - you can do nothing about it.

"Death will come, the sea will come. It's a metaphor for life."

In 2003, Scallop was unveiled at the northern end of Aldeburgh beach as a tribute to composer Benjamin Britten who was born in Lowestoft, founded the Aldeburgh Festival and wrote one of his most famous operas, Peter Grimes, about the life of a fictional local fisherman.

The three metre tall, £75,000 installation is made of stainless steel and struts go down from the sculpture to a sort of subterranean large tray which anchors it to the shingle beach.

Many were angry to see the sculpture appear on Suffolk's heritage coast.

"The juxtaposition of the sculpture to the sea is crucially important - the way the undulations of the shell echo the waves and the whole point is a conversation with the sea," said Maggi.

The Scallop, Aldeburgh
The Scallop received a torrent of abuse in 2003

"It's a bit like having a drink. You have a drink when you're miserable and a drink when you're happy.

"You could come to Scallop when you're miserable and have a conversation with the sea - that's what it's about.

"But it's quite difficult to catch it on its own. Throughout the year it's covered with children, and that's terrific, but it's hardly a solitary place!"

The lure of the North Sea

Maggi Hambling was born in Sudbury, attended Amberfield School, went to the Ipswich School of Art in the 1960s under tutor Colin Moss and has a house and studio near the coast.

Maggi started her series of North Sea paintings in 2002 after having a sudden dawning: "I'd come to look at the sea in the morning with the storm raging and waves charging and then I went back to my studio.

"I was actually painting, from memory, a little portrait of a beggar I'd seen in London.

"And I looked out of the window and the storm was still crashing around the water meadows and thought 'why are you painting a beggar in the middle of this exciting storm?'

"That was the beginning. I draw the sea each morning, very early before anyone else is about when it's still dark and often very difficult to see the sea.

Maggi Hambling with a North Sea painting
Maggi Hambling began her series of North Sea paintings in 2002

"I try to get into the rhythm of it - to start trying to make some pathetic little human marks that might have something to do with the mystery of this great, great thing in front of us.

"I'm a rather pathetic bit of land with the great sea coming at me as a metaphor for time.

"It's coming towards me, there's nothing I can do about it. There's nothing any of us can do about the fact we're going to die."

In terms of other English painters, JMW Turner visited Dunwich while John Constable, although more famous for his work in the Dedham Vale, has a painting of Aldeburgh's Martello Tower in Tate Britain.

"I vastly prefer Constable to Turner because the paint is far more rugged and necessary, whereas Turner seems slightly to be showing off with his paint.

"But Constable's a sky person - I'm more of a sea person.

"This bit of sea - this wild bit, this cold bit, this powerful bit, this frightening bit, this sensual bit - all this could apply to the sea anywhere, but it's my native bit of sea, the bit I remember coming to as a child - the piece of sea I most relate to."

Calm after the storm

Aldeburgh Town Council at Moot Hall has been the first port of call for complaints or praise about Scallop.

Town clerk Lindsay Lee said things seem to have calmed down.

"There's nothing palpable - there's no bad feeling any more," she said. "The main problem has been the graffiti and vandalism which most people in the town don't like.

"It's difficult to say what effect it has on tourism. No-one's carried out a survey on whether Scallop brings in tourists, so we can't quantify it."

Detail from Scallop
Hambling's Scallop quotes lyrics from Britten's opera Peter Grimes

Simon Loftus, the former chairman of Adnam's Brewery in Southwold, helped raise the money for the privately-funded Scallop project.

He dealt with the planners and found the engineers, J T Pegg & Sons Ltd. of Aldeburgh, to build it from a scale model.

"I just thought it was an exciting object proposed by Maggi. I thought it would sit well on the beach and I still feel that.

"It's democratic and unprotected - it was designed to be used.

"The opposition was always much more vocal than it was numerical.

"As people have got more used to it they've grown to love it. The shops are full of Scallop postcards and mugs."

Maggi herself is optimistic that the attacks on Scallop have stopped: "It's the first new year it hasn't been abused with paint.

"That's happened 11 times - always the same boring message 'tin can - move it' in a rather repetitive way.

"It just means that it's rather expensive for it to be cleaned off.

"If I was going to die tomorrow and had to say what was the most beautiful thing I'd managed to make in the course of my work it would be this.

"It would be this."

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is staging an exhibition called Maggi Hambling: The Wave. It runs 27 April-18 July 2010.

In the winter of 2009/10, The Lowry, Salford staged an exhibition called The Sea: LS Lowry and Maggi Hambling.

Maggi Hambling spoke to BBC Radio 4's Today programme about her work and Lowry's sea paintings and you can look and listen to an audio slideshow called Painting The Sea here.

Exhibition for Suffolk art tutor
21 Jan 10 |  Arts & Culture
Audio slideshow: Colin Moss exhibition
21 Jan 10 |  Arts & Culture
Sculptor made CBE in honours list
30 Dec 09 |  Suffolk
Audio slideshow: Painting the sea
15 Oct 09 |  Today
Sea's 'life and death moment'
15 Oct 09 |  Today



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