Good Time George
The remarkable life of Liverpool born George Melly - jazz musician, writer, art, film and music critic, lecturer on surrealism, raconteur and party animal - was celebrated in a self-titled exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. A series of paintings and drawings of Melly was displayed, by one of Britain's most acclaimed artists, Maggi Hambling.
Hambling - who, like Melly, has been a maverick throughout her life - was one of his greatest friends and his self confessed "soul mate."
"We recognised something in each other which rang home. He was a soul mate, absolutely," remarked Hambling.
"His death [in 2007] did not leave a hole in my life but a bloody great crater, as I call it," she added. "He is irreplaceable."
Needless to say the two of them met in most unusual circumstances, on a hot summer's evening at a garden party in London in 1980.
"Both of us were in the horizontal, you might say - something liquid had gone down," said Hambling. "Each of us was lying in a different bit of a garden path, and someone suggested we should move towards each other. We met on our stomachs! But we immediately got on.
"People sometimes described George as being an outlandish character but not to me. I myself am thought of as being over the top but what is over the top?
"He was such a big person, in more ways than one," she commented. "His stomach seemed to arrive through the door several minutes before the rest of him. He was truly a larger than life character."
One of the most bizarre occasions in which Hambling depicted Melly was in the year before he died. She did drawings of him for his last book, 'Slowing Down', which were all created in one day.
"He turned up at my studio looking like a car boot sale," remarked Hambling. "He wore a fishing hat over a fedora, carrying a fishing rod and a pair of gumboots and various other stuff. Extraordinary!"
Hambling said Melly was particularly fond of the large triple portrait she painted of him in 1998, which showed three distinct sides of his character. They were of him as Blues singer Bessie Smith, his heroine; in his jazz singer mode; and as an academic (he received an honorary degree from Liverpool John Moores University).
"A woman, looking at the painting in the National Portrait Gallery said - in an upper class voice - that it was very, very good, but I don't know who that is, pointing at Bessie Smith. Is that his wife?"
This painting was being shown at the Walker, along with several other oil paintings and twelve vibrant ink drawings; the last series of drawings for which Melly posed. There were also two paintings of his final days and works from the memory and imagination of Hambling.
Referring to her visit to Liverpool for the exhibition, Hambling said it was "...good to come up north. George would have been chuffed to have his portraits shown at the Walker, which he loved. He was very, very fond of the place.
"I love the grandeur of Liverpool and the huge variety of people in the city."
Future plans for Hambling may include an exhibition of her work at the Lowry in Salford, and a proposed memorial sculpture of Brian Epstein.
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