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Humphrey Ocean: A handbook of modern life opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London
Rosie by Humphrey Ocean, 2009. ©Humphrey Ocean.

LONDON.- On 23rd November, a display of works by British artist Humphrey Ocean opened at the National Portrait Gallery. The display contains 40 works painted in gouache on paper comprising colourful portraits of visitors to his south London studio, produced since 2006. The sitters include family members and friends.

Humphrey Ocean RA has a long association with the National Portrait Gallery, which began in 1982 when he won the Gallery’s annual Portrait Prize with the painting Lord Volvo and his Estate. Ocean has undertaken several commissions for the Gallery including portraits of Paul McCartney (1982), the poet Philip Larkin (1984) and Tony Benn (1996). In The Painter’s Eye at the National Portrait Gallery in 1999, Humphrey Ocean and film-maker John Tchalenko, with whom he has often collaborated, exhibited work from their Wellcome Trust Art and Science project. For the final room of the exhibition Ocean borrowed portraits by Rembrandt, Warhol, Auerbach and Gwen John.

A handbook of modern life has an obsessive character that is compelling and, when seen together, the portraits are an exuberant display of the artist’s love of painting, colour and people. The immediacy of the gouache medium allows Ocean to capture quickly his sitters in simple forms, yet with striking presence. The majority of portraits on display show the sitter seated, yet each has a real sense of vitality and vibrancy that extends beyond the stillness of the pose. Although the sitters have shared the experience, the unique quality of each portrait is a reflection of the way the artist and sitter responded to each other during the short period of the sitting. Ocean has attempted to paint what he saw in the studio that day; a portrait of the moment, not based on an accumulation of knowledge of the sitter. This was particularly challenging when his sitters included his daughters and wife.

Ocean says of this body of work: ‘You could say portraying a person is the trickiest subject because we know too much. In real life a simple thing like catching someone’s eye can change our lives in a second. Stretching this moment out for just as long as it takes to set it down and make a painting is what I have been doing with people I know’.

Humphrey Ocean (b.1951) studied at Canterbury Art School from 1970 to 1973. From the mid-1980s onwards his works have been shown at the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Liverpool and the Whitechapel Gallery, London. In 2002 Ocean was artist in residence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. His works are held in public collections including those of the British Council, Imperial War Museum, London and Victoria & Albert Museum. He was elected a Royal Academician in the category of Painter in 2004 and received an Honorary Doctorate from Canterbury Christ Church University in 2012. Humphrey Ocean lives and works in London.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: “Humphrey Ocean’s portraits of his studio visitors are sparklingly vivid and yet convey the meditative process between sitter and artist”.

The exhibition is curated by Rosie Broadley, Associate Curator, National Portrait Gallery. Broadley says: ‘This display is an edit of a larger portrait project which has grown into a crowd of family and friends. The portraits take less than an hour, and retain the vitality of that short sitting. The loose painting style belies Ocean’s acute attention to detail which makes each portrait such an effective likeness’.

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