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Humphrey Ocean, whose display A handbook of modern life opens at the Gallery this month, began making a series of portraits of visitors to his south London studio – friends, family and people he knows – in 2006; a diverse group who now number almost two hundred.  The portraits share a format, and by using gouache, a kind of thickened watercolour, on paper, Ocean can work very swiftly.  None of the portraits took more than forty-five minutes. 

When I visited the studio in 2009 to view the existing works, with this display in mind, I was thrilled when the artist asked if I’d sit too.  I perched awkwardly on a chair in the middle of the large, bright space – Ocean’s studio is in a former radio factory – and I didn’t know what to do, particularly with my arms.  You can see that I’m anxiously gripping the chair, trying to be a good sitter.  When I first saw the portrait I experienced a mild panic of exposure; I was confronted by me as I see myself, without the filters of self-confidence and professionalism.  It seemed that Ocean painted me exactly the way I felt that day; like being painted inside-out.  However, the way artist and sitter appreciate the finished portrait is different.  My response was inevitably self-interested, based on the usual expectations of likeness and description of character.  I think that Ocean ‘got’ me perfectly, but he insists that is not his intention with this series of paintings. He is interested in distilling a portrait to that visual ‘hit’ you get in a momentary glance, or a first meeting.  For him,‘likeness’ is incidental, ‘often the worst thing one can do’, he says, ‘is compare the flat coloured paper to the whole flesh and blood’.

By Rosie Broadley, Associate Curator

Image Credits (from top to bottom)

Rosie, 2009. © Humphrey Ocean.
Maurice, 2007. © Humphrey Ocean.
Jack, 2006. © Humphrey Ocean.

As part of the display Humphrey Ocean: A handbook of modern life


Got something to say?

Rachel Bahay

31 May 2018, 17:18

I absolutely love Humphrey Oceans work!
I'm not an expert in Art at all , just enjoy looking at it in all its forms! And I loved looking at his paintings online, which actually remind me a little of David Hockneys portraits.
The fact that he has captured something of each sitter in just 45 mins is pure genius!
I had the pleasure of meeting John today and he was such a gentleman and very excited to show me some of the sculptures hes done recently, (which is why Im on here having a look at his work)
I'm now going to make the effort to see his work at The Summer Exhibition. A very talented and sweet man.


08 March 2013, 13:23

I had the chance to discover Humphrey's work at the NPG, and really enjoyed it.


02 February 2013, 10:26

Having struggled round Manet at the RA, constantly bumped by the crowds of headset wearers on a mission to push everyone else out of the way, I sought solace in the Portrait Gallery and there, joy of joys was Humphrey Ocean's A Handbook of Modern Life. A first sight it looks depressingly grey and sploshy, but within seconds I found myself chuckling in admiration at his ability to say so much with simple brushstrokes. Big hands resting on laps, heads and hair so perfectly seen , clothes painted with wit and affection. This is not to be missed. My favourite? A lanky man seen from behind with the most wonderful ears.

Judy Stephens

20 December 2012, 19:35

Rosie's words are as vivid as the paint. She captures her side of the experience with great clarity and honesty. Fascinating.

Peter Belchamber

22 November 2012, 18:22

What a wonderful freshness and immediacy Humphrey Ocean's portraits have, just as if they had sprung straight from his handbook. And how skilful of the artist to be able to capture first impressions of such a wide range of people in no more than 45 minutes for each portrait. How lucky for you, Rosie, that you walked into his studio that day...

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