I remember Lett telling me, 'Don't miss the boat.' I said, 'How will I know when it appears?' He said, 'Just don't miss it'
Art began for me at the age of 14. We had an art exam and I did nothing but flick paint at people because I was in love with the biology mistress, who was invigilating. When I realised there were 10 minutes left, I did a painting. I came top of the class. It was after that I began to take an interest.
I remember staying up until 2am painting the night sky and taking the pictures into school the next day. My art teacher, Yvonne Drewry, found me crying because the girls had laughed at me. She said: "You have it in you to be an artist. All criticism has to be water off a duck's back. Take no notice of anyone's reaction." I decided I was going to try to be an artist.
My mother said later that it was meant to be, because if I had passed my 11-plus I would have gone to high school like my sister.
We lived in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Benton End, where artist Cedric Morris lived with his lover Arthur Lett-Haines, was known locally as "the artists'
house", and considered disreputable. I went there one evening with two oils I had painted. They were Suffolk landscapes painted while I was staying with Yvonne Drewry in the holidays, which is how smoking came into my life.
It was a hot summer and the insects were sticking to the brushes; she said a cig would keep them away. Having a cigarette in my hand has been part of the act of working since then.
Lett answered the door, tall and frightening. Cedric Morris was sitting at the end of a long table; we chatted, then he looked at my paintings. He made criticisms, but was encouraging. Lett made entirely the opposite criticisms, but was also encouraging. He said I should come in the holidays and do some painting; they ran an informal art school at the house.
The first day I went, I was too nervous to go in. I sat at the end of the drive painting the ditch until someone took me in. After that, I started working with Lett, painting early in the morning then helping him in the kitchen chopping carrots, painting again in the afternoon. He was a great cook but always grumbled about it, saying he should be doing his own work.
Lett would have a gin and French on the go from early in the morning. He criticised the way I did things and after a week I was in tears, but he said: "You don't pick holes in a rotten apple." He took me seriously.
Life really began. The world opened up. It was Lett who said the most important thing: that I should get into the relationship with my work, that it was my best friend, that I could go to it whatever I was feeling and have a conversation with it. It was a great privilege, at 15. He said there was no point in trying to be an artist unless you had imagination. He constantly experimented, making petits sculptures out of bones, shells and cigar tin lids. He kept pencil sharpenings in case they'd come in useful.
Everything he did was an experiment and I've held that in my own work. They hated art dealers. They regarded them as crooks and shits, and that encouraged my independence.
I left school halfway through A-levels, going to Ipswich art school on a pre-diploma course. I remember Lett telling me: "Don't miss the boat." I said: "How will I know when it appears?" He said: "Just don't miss it." He was president of Colchester Art Society and he encouraged people to buy my paintings.
Class was a big thing for him; Cedric was a baronet. He had an incredible laugh. He'd designed his own false teeth and there was a danger when he laughed that they would fall out. And he talked about sex, from innuendo to downright filth. He died in 1978. He and Lett had fallen in love on Armistice night and were together 60 years. He's still in my dreams. I can still hear his laugh. If you're going to be an artist, it has to be the priority of your life. That's what Benton End showed me.
Artist Maggi Hambling was talking to Wendy Wallace. Her painting, Lett, Evening, is in the Arts Council Collection, Hayward Gallery, London
THE STORY SO FAR
1945 Born Hadleigh, Suffolk
1960 Studies with Arthur Lett-Haines and Cedric Morris
1962-64 Attends Ipswich school of art
1964-67 Camberwell school of art, London
1967-69 Slade school of fine art, University College London
1980-81 Becomes first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, London
1995 Wins the Jerwood painting prize. Awarded OBE
1998 Public sculpture of Oscar Wilde unveiled in Adelaide Street, London WC2
2003 Sculpture to celebrate Benjamin Britten unveiled in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Donates line drawing to Unicef to raise money for children in conflict
March 30 2004 Drawing published in Colour It! (Frances LincolnModern Painters magazine pound;4.99); originals auctioned at Sotheby's on the same day. For details go to www.franceslincoln.com