Lunch with the FT: Maggi Hambling

Maggi Hambling is not impressed. Yet again, one of her public art works has been vandalised: the cigarette welded to the long fingers of her sculpture of Oscar Wilde in Covent Garden has been stolen. "It has been removed for about the fourth time. No joke!" she tells me as soon as I join her for lunch.

"I'm refusing to replace it until Westminster Council puts a CCTV camera there. The last cigarette was made of steel and must have taken two nights to saw through. This one was made from hardened stainless steel by the people who made my sculpture in Aldeburgh - it must have taken several nights!" Could it be an anti-smoking gesture? "Or anti-queer," she retorts.

Hambling asked me to book our lunch in one of her favourite restaurants, the Ivy. We are not far from her Oscar Wilde statue, and near the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), which owns eight of her works.

She may be a regular at the celebrity-haunt, but I, sadly, am not. Getting a table through the normal channels proved impossible. Eventually I gave up and called the Ivy's PR manager. The mention of my guest's name magically accorded me this cosy corner banquette, deemed quiet enough to conduct an interview.

On the day however, the low-lit, wood-panelled restaurant is surprisingly noisy. Our table is next to a boisterous foursome of grey-suited men, swilling champagne and laughing. In fact, looking around, 90 per cent of the other diners fit this description. It is hardly the starry clientele one might expect from the Ivy's reputation, although there is a distinctly clubby atmosphere and I overhear one well-dressed woman asking the cloakroom attendant how her cat is faring.

I ask Hambling if she has seen anyone she knows. She makes it clear that she couldn't care less: "I just walked straight here, I haven't looked right or left."

I confess to being nervous about using my recording device. With great comic poise and a dash of theatricality, she rests her elbows on the table, looks me directly in the eye and says, in her famously deep voice: "I wouldn't mind a drink."

I saw the Suffolk-born artist talk about portraiture some years back. She struck me as archly funny, sharp and, frankly, terrifying. The newspaper cuttings I read before the interview only increased my trepidation. But while her unflinching gaze clearly doesn't miss a trick, she is gentler than one might imagine and her enormous clear blue eyes, framed by a good coat of black mascara, have a certain softness.

Today she is wearing a cheerful star-print black and white shirt over a white T-shirt, and her mad-artist hair, memorable from her various self-portraits, has been stylishly tamed. "People say I'm far less scary than I used to be," the 62-year-old says. Is this a good or a bad thing? "Very bad," she replies, briskly, while looking around for a waiter. "I'll have to work on that."

Hambling orders a bloody Mary, I go for white wine, and we discuss what to eat. She has made up her mind before I have even picked up my menu: refusing a starter, she wants what she always orders here - steak tartare (medium spicy). I go for the char-grilled monkfish with pumpkin.

For Hambling, the appeal of dining here is less to do with the food and more to do with nostalgia for lunches past. She tells me that the last time she ate here was with her great friend, the late jazz singer George Melly - her portrait of him is in the NPG.

The drinks arrive and we carry on our discussion about public sculpture. Her Wilde is not the only Hambling work to have been defiled. Her ode to Benjamin Britten, "Scallop", a four-metre-high steel shell on Aldeburgh beach, provoked a great deal of controversy - and graffiti - when it was unveiled in November 2003. I ask whether things have calmed down. "It's like that sports programme, They Think It's All Over," she muses, stirring the ice in her large goblet glass with a straw. "It's very dangerous to think it's all over, because at any moment it can happen again. I've heard there are still mumblings of disgruntlement in the pubs around the place."

The waiter arrives with our food. Hambling looks at her sculptural slab of raw chopped beef, and sighs. "I did think about becoming a vegetarian, but I never got further than thinking about it."

Aside from "Scallop", Hambling is best-known for her expressive portraits in oil and distinctively wild brushwork. It takes a good few minutes to fully appreciate a Hambling. At first, the frenzied surface - an unruly sprawl of lines and colours - obscures the subject itself. But after a while, the sitter wavers into life and almost appears to be breathing.

In one of her self portraits, and in her painting of the elderly chemist Dorothy Hodgkin (both in the NPG), Hambling gives the sitters multiple hands: in Hodgkin's case, to show her industriousness, and in the self portrait, three hands convey Hambling's essential accoutrements (a cigarette, a drink and a paintbrush).

This sense of a painting's having a continuous life is crucial to Hambling's attitude: "When you stand in front of a Titian, or a Constable, or a Van Gogh or a Rothko, you feel that the painting is happening, being done in front of you. It has a life of its own." She gets more and more animated as she explains, temporarily abandoning her tri-partite main course (steak tartare, chips, salad). This is clearly the subject that really fires her up - and the resulting combination of focus and enthusiasm is very engaging. "It is not the same with photography," she adds with emphasis, nudging the bowl of chips in my direction. "Photography, to me, has happened, right, whereas painting is happening."

I suggest another bloody Mary, but she shakes her head firmly, "no, no." As we continue eating, Hambling forks her way through the tartare expertly, and I relish my giant tranche of char-grilled fish. This is the ideal, hearty sustenance for a serious discussion about art.

Hambling explains how she feels most of the "so-called sensational art" (the type of work that showed in the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition in 1997) has also "happened", just like photography: its effect is instantaneous and therefore forgettable. She admits that the first time she saw Damien Hirst's shark ("The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", 1991), she was bowled over, but not the second time. "You don't need to go back and see it again and again, unlike with certain paintings. Painting intrinsically has a strange life of its own."

Hambling is concerned with exposing the essence of her sitter, which is something intangible that is far beyond rendering mere likeness ("that takes two minutes!"). She has also often drawn those close to her on their death bed, or even in their coffin. These studies, particularly those of her frail elderly father, and her partner Henrietta Moraes (who died in 1998) have an extraordinary impact. It is as if Hambling were trying to pin down the very last of the person's soul before it evaporated. She says she finds this process "essential. Absolutely essential. I think artists are so lucky that they can - these things help a bit."

We've finished our main courses, and the waiter has brought back the menus. I ask her if she would like a dessert. She looks disapproving and mentions that since she gave up smoking three years ago she no longer "does dessert". Hambling was never pictured without a cigarette in her hand; she now carries a plastic one for photographs ("do tell your illustrator to include one!"). Although she had already given up, Hambling was staunchly against the smoking ban.

I ask whether it is easier for her not to be surrounded by smokers, in a restaurant such as this: "I would love it! I'd be lapping up the smoke. On my third anniversary of giving up I enjoyed several cigarettes, and also at the wake of George Melly's funeral. If you're a smoker, you're a smoker." So when will she next have one? Her eyes glint with a wicked twinkle: "I think possibly after the opening of my show at the Marlborough. I see a cigarette beckoning!"

We order coffees and discuss how she spends her days. Loyal to Suffolk, Hambling lives there most of the time - though for several years she has come to London once a week to teach at Morley College. "I'm sort of addicted to it," she says. "I can draw the model when I feel like it, but I also treat it as my office day really - make telephone calls and write letters." Hambling disapproves of e-mail, and has no plans to own a computer. But she does own a silver Bentley, which she has named Bent.

Who is her present muse? "The sea is my lover at the moment," she says, with dramatic irony, and describes how she gets up at 6am to make sketches of waves. "I like to paint the sounds as they crash - it's impossible of course - but I don't see the point of doing anything that is possible!"

The resulting sea paintings - huge surging close-ups in oil - are some of Hambling's finest works to date. Along with a waterfall series, painted mainly from the imagination, these seascapes are the subject of her aforementioned show - which opens on Wednesday at Marlborough Fine Art in London.
Is there perhaps a suggestion of female anatomy in the large, vertical waterfall scenes, I venture? "Fannies?" she says in a comically camp voice. "Yeah, yeah, why not? Very good. They could be interpreted as very grand-scale fannies. What is wrong with that? Crashing waves are orgasmic." And then leans forward once again to say in a grave tone: "It's all about sex, really."

She signs my copy of her recent monograph, Maggi Hambling: The Works (which also features a collection of conversations with the art critic Andrew Lambirth - and pleases her as it has "no theories, just a few jokes"), and starts to look restless.

"I've been up since six. This is nearly bedtime. And I have to go home and walk my dog." With that, Hambling stands up and dons a black and white coat and her trademark black felt fedora. "I dress to match my dog," she says, and strides quickly through the crowded restaurant.