Rosie, the stuffed rhinoceros in Ipswich Museum, 1963, Maggi Hambling © The Trustees of the British Museum, London.

London - Maggi Hambling at the British Museum is an exciting surprise, with her drawing exhibition “Touch: works on paper”.

The exhibition celebrates a major donation by the artist of around fifteen of her works, confirming the bicentenary tradition of artists donating their works to the British Museum, which was established in 1816 with the bequest of Francis Towne. Maggi Hambling’s gift will be the latest manifestation of that tradition, maybe remembering she has spent time over the years in the British Museum Study Room examining the work of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

One of the leading contemporary figurative artists of the UK, Maggi Hambling works across all media, in painting, printmaking, sculpture and installation with drawing at the core centre of her practice.

The British Museum exhibition takes its title ‘Touch’ from the idea of a profound relation between the artist and the subject being drawn, but also between Hambling and her own work. She said: “I believe the subject chooses the artist, not vice versa, and that subject must then be in charge during the act of drawing in order for the truth to be found. Eye and hand attempt to discover and produce those precise marks which will recreate what the heart feels. The challenge is to touch the subject, with all the desire of a lover.”

This exhibition explores Hambling’s drawings and prints, many of which have never been exhibited before, from early student drawings and etchings, to portraits of artist and critic John Berger, actor Stephen Fry, and curator Norman Rosenthal.

The exhibition is in a fairly chronological order, spanning for the life of Maggi Hambling. ‘Touch’ is made of forty works, around a quarter from British Museum’s own collection, with loans from private collections, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate. The remaining works are from the personal collection of Hambling.

A notably life size and outstanding charcoal portrait of Sebastian Horsley opens the show. He was a writer, artist and Soho dandy, who Hambling has described as ‘an exotic wild animal’. The portrait is about the human form, a major theme of the exhibition and it depicts the subject wearing a silk scarf only.

The exhibition proceeds displaying Hambling’s earliest work from the 1960s and 1970s. One of the most interesting work is the potent ink drawing of Rosie, the stuffed Indian rhinoceros in Ipswich Museum, which the artists considers ‘her first portrait’, and it was executed when the artist was seventeen.

The British Museum exhibition ends with recent work made in 2015, from a new series entitled Edge focused on global warming.

There is one only sculpture made of contorted plaster, sitting in the middle of the room 90 of the British Museum, titled ‘Henrietta eating a meringue’ (2001). The work of Hambling, in fact, was widely inspired to Henrietta Moraes, her life partner.

Hambling is openly ‘lesbionic’, in her own adjective. She met with Moraes in 1998, and she made charcoal portraits of her in the last year of her life. Henrietta Moraes (1931 - 1999) was a British artist, model and memoirist, who was the muse and inspiration for many artists of the Soho subculture during the 1950s and 1960s.

Maggi Hambling is born in Suffolk (23rd October 1945). She studied with the artists Arthur Lett-Haines and Cedric Morris from the age of fifteen and later at Ipswich Art School, Camberwell and the Slade. Although she is perhaps best known for her controversial public sculpture: Oscar Wilde (1998, facing Charing Cross Station, London) and Scallop, (2003, Aldeburgh Beach, Suffolk), Hambling’s powerful drawings and monotypes are less familiar to the public.

The British Museum was the first national institution to collect extensively Hambling’s works on paper. In 1985 the Museum acquired the drawing of her former teacher Cedric Morris on his deathbed. Hambling’s first series of monotypes, sensuous studies of the nude, were purchased soon after and the Museum has continued to collect her work.

The drawing exhibitionMaggi Hambling – Touch: works on paper” is at the British Museum, Room 90, London, from 8th September 2016 until 27th January 2017.