Portrait of Frances Rose marked Maggi Hambling's return to painting after a four year period of performance and installation art. Following the practice taught to her by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines at their private art school in Benton End, Suffolk, Hambling made preliminary drawings from life for the painting. She then worked from these drawings exclusively when painting the picture.
Frances Rose, the subject of four portraits by Hambling between 1973 and 1975, was the artist's neighbour in Clapham, London. From a working class background, she was a widow in her early eighties when the picture was painted. According to Hambling, Mrs Rose commonly wore the blue dress and always had a clip in her hair. Her twisted arthritic hands were, in Hambling's view, a result of a life spent in domestic service. The ring on her left hand is her wedding ring.
The over life-size figure is presented sitting off-centre and frontal against a white wall in the artist's studio. Hambling is unflinching in her appraisal of the sitter's appearance; the facial warts, sagging leathery skin and gnarled hands are testimony to an approach based on intense unsentimental observation of the individual. The face is built-up with a thick impasto, giving its weathered features a three-dimensional presence. The sitter's eyelids, nostrils and the folds of her jowls all stand proud of the rest of the picture surface; the eyes themselves are recessed in the mass of paint. In contrast, the blue dress and the green chair seat have been worked up using thin washes of paint. The juxtaposition of these textural effects and the picture's vivid chromatic contrasts contribute to the immediacy of the image.
Hambling's close scrutiny of her portrait subjects has often been compared to the work of Lucian Freud, another former student at Benton End. However, critics have tended to note a greater degree of compassion in her work compared to the alleged severity of Freud's. Hambling herself has acknowledged an interest in many artists including Rembrandt and Francis Bacon, but above all she cites the visionary painter, sculptor and writer Lett-Haines as her mentor.
Maggi Hambling: Paintings, drawings and watercolours, Serpentine Gallery, London 1987
Max Wall Pictures by Maggi Hambling, National Portrait Gallery, London 1983