YOU, too, can be like Maggi Hambling, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in being drawn to Henrietta Moraes, writes Jackie McGlone
WHEN the flamboyant artist Maggi Hambling met theatre performer Sue MacLaine, she could not imagine how someone so delicately built could embody Henrietta Moraes, the woman she had loved, drawn and painted – in life and in death.
Moraes, a famous beauty who became the hell-raising, hard-drinking, drug-addicted “Queen of Soho”, was sturdy. “At least she was when I knew her in the last year of her life, although she still had such presence. She had, of course, been voluptuous when younger,” recalls Hambling. So she was dubious about the idea of anyone trying to portray her lover and model, who died in 1999 at the age of 67.
MacLaine’s take on Moraes’s story, Still Life: An Audience With Henrietta Moraes, is making a big impression at Edinburgh’s Whitespace Gallery. Audiences are given sketch pads and pencils, and invited to draw the nude MacLaine during the show, staged as a life-drawing class.
Fifty-year-old MacLaine fell under Moraes’s spell in 1999, after discovering her acclaimed autobiography, Henrietta, first published in 1994 (the year when I met and interviewed her – of which more later).
“Obviously, I never knew her,” says the Brighton-based performer. “But then I read her obituary, and it gave her profession as ‘bohemian’. I was completely fascinated. Here was a woman who deliberately set out in the 1950s to meet both Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and ended up modelling for them.”
Freud, a lover, made three portraits of Moraes; Bacon painted her perhaps 18 times, mainly from “dirty” photographs taken by their friend John Deakin, although Bacon still had to have her naked presence in his studio while he was working. She once said: “I only pose for geniuses.”
Moraes’s potent attraction for so many great artists fascinated MacLaine, who is slender with a silvery urchin-cut hairstyle. “I just felt I had to write about her,” she says. She contacted Hambling, requesting a meeting. “I was thrilled when Maggi invited me to her studio so that I could see where she had made all the artworks inspired by Henrietta. But Still Life is definitely not a biopic. It’s not representational, with me in a wig, trying to be Henrietta; it’s my attempt to bring the essence of her into the room so that she influences the drawings people make during the piece. Henrietta had a hell of a life, so finding key elements for the piece was difficult. You could go on and on, because she survives beyond death. She still seems to exist in a very powerful way.”
Thrice married, Moraes had a son and a daughter with her second husband, bodybuilder and actor Norman Bowler (well known as Frank Tate in Emmerdale), whom she lured from his lover, the homosexual painter Johnny Minton, although it was disclosed in 2010 that her son was the secret love-child of Scottish aristocrat Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner. Moraes’s third marriage was to the Indian poet Dom Moraes, who never returned after going out to buy some cigarettes.
Her turbulent life also included a spell as Marianne Faithfull’s minder, a four-year, hippy caravan trip across Britain, and a brief, failed career as a cat burglar (which led to a stay in Holloway Prison).
Small wonder, then, that MacLaine felt “drawn” to Moraes, who also exerted a powerful influence on Hambling even long after her death since she made numerous portraits and sculptures of her over several years.
In 2001, Hambling published a book of unflinching drawings of Moraes, also the subject of an exhibition of paintings and sculptures at Marlborough Fine Art in London. They include Henrietta Drunk, Henrietta Laughing and Henrietta Eating a Meringue – defiantly; she’d been diagnosed with diabetes – as well as Henrietta in Her Coffin, wearing a rakish red hat, one eye cocked open.
“Drawing and painting Henrietta was an electric experience compared with most people I’ve painted,” recalls Hambling, whose subjects have ranged from AJP Taylor to George Melly, whom she also painted after his death, as she had her father and then Moraes. “George used to say I’d go down in art history as Maggi ‘Coffin’ Hambling,” she laughs.
She admits quietly that by drawing those she has loved dead or dying, she is probably trying to turn grief on its head. “I remember after George died, I did a great many paintings of him. I was surrounded by them. Then they were taken to Liverpool to be exhibited. I came up to the studio and it was empty. I thought, ‘I’ve got to face it, he’s dead.’
“That’s how it was with my father and with Henrietta. It does help. It’s not therapy, it’s grieving in a positive way; it’s one of the benefits of being an artist. I also think Henrietta, who died with style and panache, asking for a hug and a cigarette, taught me how to die.”
Hesitantly, Hambling saw an early version of Still Life several years ago before MacLaine decided to stage the show as a life class. “I could not believe that Sue could become this person,” she says. “Yet she got Henrietta’s brightness, her directness.”
I know exactly what Hambling means when she mentions Moraes’s captivating personality. One December morning, in 1994, I went to 18 Edith Grove, the one-room council flat in Chelsea where Moraes lived and died. Hours later, I left after getting a prescription refilled for her, shopping for chocolate and fruit, then walking her dachshund, Max.
She had a back problem, a broken bone in her foot and was suffering from the cirrhosis of the liver that would eventually kill her, but was then clean and sober. She conducted the interview from her single bed, recumbent like the Queen of Sheba.
“Par for the course!” Hambling exclaims, with a bark of laughter when I tell her this. “Henrietta was like a tank – one really didn’t stand a chance. She was in command of all she surveyed, but she was also infuriating and impossible. She was a very moral woman, although some might think her life immoral. I think she was quite pure, the rawness of her. ”
Does Hambling, who met Moraes in 1998 at a dinner to celebrate the opening of a Hayward Gallery Francis Bacon exhibition, wish she had known Moraes earlier? “Of course,” she replies. “But you know, life gives you what it gives you.”
Finally, what advice has Hambling – whom Moraes once compared to Michelangelo – for audiences drawing “Henrietta” from life?
“Oh, God,” she groans. “It’s difficult, very tricky. But your eye should be on the model as you make marks on the paper. If you look at Sue, then at the paper, you’re actually working from memory, not from life. Get rid of all the rubbish in your head. Let the subject be in charge of the artist, not the other way round. The truth is lying there with nothing on.”
• Still Life: An Audience With Henrietta Moraes, Whitespace (Venue 116), until 27 August. Today, 5:15pm.
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