Hambling is best known for her intimate portraits of friends and family, such as that of her neighbour, Portrait of Frances Rose 1973 (Tate T06786), and that of her father, Father, Late December 1997 1997 (Tate T07835). One of her first exhibitions, held at the Morley Gallery, London SE1 in 1973, was of portraits drawn from memory and from observation. Although her subject matter subsequently extended to allegorical paintings and sculpture and a number of near-abstract watercolours and drawings, portraiture – sketched, painted and sculpted – has remained central to her practice.
David Brown was born in Hampshire in 1925. He worked in the Cornish tin mines before studying veterinary medicine first at Edinburgh University and later at Cambridge. He moved to Kenya to take up a veterinary research post in 1954 and completed a doctorate in 1957. Brown began to collect art at around this time, buying recent British art while visiting London. He returned to London in 1967, following the death of his companion in Nigeria, and in 1970 he began studying art history at the University of East Anglia. He took a post at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in 1973, where he remained for fourteen months curating exhibitions of the work of Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Roger Hilton (1911-75) and Richard Long (born 1945).
Brown was appointed Assistant Curator in the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery in 1974. He curated several exhibitions during his tenure at the Tate including a major St Ives exhibition in 1985, the year he retired. He also advised the Southampton City Art Gallery on their collection. By this time he had amassed a substantial personal collection, comprising work by a wide range of artists. David Brown died on 5 May 2002, leaving his collection and archive to a small number of national and regional institutions including Tate, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Southampton City Art Gallery and the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
Hambling’s portrait of Brown was commissioned by his colleagues on his retirement from Tate in 1985. As is typical of Hambling’s portraits it appears direct and unflinchingly honest. Brown described sitting for Hambling in a text he wrote thanking his colleagues for the gift:
There were two sittings to Maggi, each of about two hours, on a successive Saturday and Sunday morning in the middle of January 1986. I put on my best, grey, suit; a badge in the form of a tiny Swan Vesta matchbox on the lapel of the jacket and a coloured silk handkerchief in the top pocket were to give myself a bit of character.
Sittings were in Maggi’s house in Clapham where her studio is on the first floor ... I sat in a folding canvas chair with the windows of the room on my right, which gave a good light. Maggi was about ten feet away and she asked me to sit comfortably and said that a relaxed pose would come about naturally, which it did. I focused my gaze on a circle drawn some time previously, under a poem by Rudyard Kipling which a friend of Maggi’s had written out on a sheet of paper and stuck onto the wall, in front, but slightly to my right. I kept quiet to avoid disturbing Maggi’s concentration and there was little sustained conversation. From time to time there were breaks for us to relax and at the end of each sitting we had a much needed whisky.
I like the portrait and think it a good drawing. Some of my former Tate colleagues think that I am depicted looking too old and too sad; that may be the result of a Scottish Hogmany.
(Quoted in Maggi Hambling: Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, p.51.)
Maggi Hambling: Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1987, p.51, reproduced p.51
Dr Judith Collins and George Melly, Towards Laughter: Maggi Hambling, exhibition catalogue, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Sunderland 1993