Tom Hammick: Loving, and letting go

Imogen Lycett Green meets Tom Hammick.

Portrait © Leigh Simpson.

“We love Tom Hammick,” says Sara Cooper, Head of Exhibitions and Collections at Towner Eastbourne, where Hammick’s 1999 work Airline Ticketing will appear in the new spring show, Unseen. I’m not sure about this piece, its airport setting is somehow awkward, angular. What is it saying? Where are the horses and houses, myriad colours and big skies of more familiar Hammick paintings? But Cooper is confident in her choice, having selected the print alongside 99 works by other artists, from the Towner’s permanent collection. The Unseen show will celebrate 100 years of Towner, in a high-profile year for the Sussex gallery which culminates in its hosting of the Turner Prize later this year. “We love Tom’s work and his connection with Sussex,” she says. “He’s been good to us.”

In 2016, Hammick curated Towards Night, a much-lauded Towner exhibition showing two of his own nocturnal pieces alongside the assembled work of 60 artists, including Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape (1811), borrowed from the National Gallery. In 2019, Hammick’s work was shown at Towner alongside Sussex stalwarts Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash. Hammick shows all over the world (from Alaska to Aberdeen, via New York and Beijing) but East Sussex remains a constant. He taught for years at University of Brighton, and, with his wife Martha, brought up his children here, working in a garden studio and loving the interruptions of family life into the “loneliness of painting”.

Famously prolific, Hammick has stuck at the loneliness of painting for over 30 years. In Wall, Window, World, his 2015 monograph on Hammick, art historian Julian Bell describes how Camberwell School of Art, where Hammick studied in the 1980s, began to shift its teaching perspective just as the artist arrived on the Fine Art BA. The school’s perceptual approach, looking at objects or figures – ‘typically, models’ bodies’ – in relation to the surfaces on which they were represented, was, at that moment, largely ‘overruled in the art world, from one side by reason of its inexpressiveness, from others by reason of its subscription to figuration or indeed to the very medium of paint.’ Other schools, such as Goldsmiths – from where most of the YBAs graduated in the 1990s – were encouraging experimentation in sculpture, video, sound. Yet Hammick remained committed to painting and printmaking, even when his tutors, such as the painter Ian McKeever, regarded his approach as ‘too head on’.

Being ‘head on’ has served him well. His work sells. And ‘head on’ he is, in every sense. Over six foot, he is broad shouldered, energetic, he strides, leaps, his hair, once jet black, now silver grey, is a bit mad and messy, flopping over black-rimmed glasses. He is mostly paint-spattered, often dressed in shirts he is busting out of, like Tom Kitten, or waistcoats, buttons flying off; he is quick to laugh, always sketching, moving, thinking, shaking his head in wonder. He is so damn alive. Tom and I have been friends for a long time. I have interviewed him before.

Koodge’s Garden, 2022 © Tom Hammick
All rights reserved, DACS 2023

But today is unusual. Tom arrives at my home in the Downs directly from his mother’s bedside in South London. He and his two sisters brought their mother home from hospital four weeks ago, in the advanced stages of cancer. Both together and taking turns, the siblings have learned to nurse her, to administer pain killers, to judge her mood and know what she needs. She has been holding her son’s hand.

Yesterday, on the phone, Tom and I compared notes on deathside vigils – I too nursed my mother with my siblings. In our conversation, we glide easily between tragedy and hilarity, noting the horror of dying juxtaposed with ever-present yet unspoken sibling rivalry, blue pills, white pills, the changing of your parent’s nappy (something I did). Meaningful (or not meaningful) last conversations, the very power of imminent death, how wearing it is. “Dying like this is not much fun,” he says. We laugh at the absurdity. Is death ever fun? The head nurse from the local hospice has been in to tell him and his sisters – more to admonish them, feels Tom – they are looking after her too well. “You need to let her go,” says the nurse.

Now he is here. But should he go back? Tom’s sisters have persuaded him to have a break from his mother’s bedside. But still he worries. Of course we talk about his mother. “She loves having us all together, finally,” says Tom. “We have a theory. She was sent away to school at five, and I think this affected her deeply. She has a fear of abandonment, you find it in her novels and in her anxiety around the anticipation of moments of departure, all her life, so much so that she couldn’t enjoy life in the present much.” Tom’s mother and father ran bookshops and sent him away to boarding school himself, and much later, in his late teens, after a war of attrition, they split up, his mother becoming a novelist, a good one. Our conversation isn’t really an artist interview, but it just doesn’t matter. I’ll cobble something together. We decide to go for a walk.

As the village path unfolds beneath our feet, the Norman tower of the flint church stands cold against an evening sky which is colouring up, from blue grey to a blush, then to a pink as pink as Chagall’s pink sky in Poet Reclining (1915), one of Tom’s favourite paintings. In an orange kagoule, blue jeans and hiking boots, Tom splashes through the waterlogged Lady’s Meadow, before we turn into Rookery Wood. Tom lingers, talking on the phone with his sisters, while I stride on, up through the trees, rooks cawing, twigs snapping under foot, up, up until I break out onto the clear pasture on top of the Downs, the south-westerly wind blasting up from the sea here, hastening my steps along the top ridge to the wide chalk sheep drover’s track which sweeps down into the hamlet of Norton.

Remembering Gins at Night, 2021 © Tom Hammick. All rights reserved, DACS 2023

I wait for Tom, but he’s a long way back. The hawthorn trees are black and bare against the pink sky and, as dusk falls, the lights of the huddled houses twinkle below us, like an alpine village across the valley. Orange-clad Tom is a small speck on the green grass, evening sky behind and it dawns on me that we are actually in a Tom Hammick painting –bold colour blocks, silhouetted winter trees, pink sky, tiny homes with the lights on, always out of reach, even distant Newhaven, the industry of the ferry and lighthouse. For this is what Tom paints: the domestic in the epic landscape; tiny hut against the tundra; a mother and child (for years his wife Martha as muse, with their daughters Cecilia and Elspeth); a small boat on a huge sea; a speck on the horizon, just like Tom is now.

Or a house from the outside in. Tom catches up and we reach the tiny hamlet as darkness falls. He’s been sketching while walking. We peer into a cottage window and see a woman leaning over a stove, stirring a red pot. So many of Tom’s paintings look into a house from the dark night outside, exterior walls separating the artist from the domesticity within, as if those windows or walls are the very borders of intimacy, borders all of us try and breach but where so often we don’t succeed. Again and again, Tom’s work pays attention to the connect-disconnect of the human state, the constant flux between safety and fear.

We proceed in silence, our footsteps muted, rubber soles on tarmac, it is fully dark now, there are no streetlights on this country lane, only horses shuffling behind hedges, a fox staring, then gone. Tom says he wants to return to Sussex, when he has pulled some money together, he wants to buy a field and put his shepherd’s hut studio on it. Will you look out for a field, he asks me. I will.

Tom says suddenly: “I feel restless, I think she’s dying, I can feel it.”

Walking into the village under the dark canopy of a large evergreen oak, our pace quickens, we burst back in through the kitchen door, from cold to warmth, put the kettle on, Tom receives a text: “She’s going”. What? I make tea, small cups to be drunk quickly, change out of muddy boots, she’s going, then, a beep, Tom looks at his phone again. He says, “She’s dead, my mother’s died,” and he leaves the room to speak with his sisters.

He departs straight after, there is much hugging, a new energy taking hold, the shock of the new, this new world, without his mother, relief perhaps, that her suffering is over, disbelief as well.

As a child, Tom’s busy and preoccupied parents occasionally read to him, picture books by Virginia Lee Burton, John Burningham, Ernest Shepard, and that rare but precious closeness (a lap, a steady voice, those illuminated images) still burns bright in his heart. He writes: “The repeated themes of love and loss and the constant question of where home is, or might be, at the centre of Burton’s book, The Little House, is at the centre of my own practice. I have painted these questions out on repeat in many guises all my life.”

A mother dies. Yet again, love is coupled with loss. Perhaps he has always been practicing for this. Now I get it. I suddenly see Airline Ticketing with new eyes. Its deep red sky and isolated figures – the woman and the captain – held behind lines, speak to me now of that tension between staying and going, the tug of departure, the bliss of homecoming. Perhaps we so badly want Tom Hammick’s work in our public galleries, and his paintings and prints in our private homes, because he dares to reiterate, over and over, what all of us know to be true: we are held, then we must let go.

Imogen Lycett Green is an arts journalist and curator of kids’ poetry projects, including Betjeman Poetry Prize and Track Record.