Humphrey Ocean RA is a painter, best known for his portraits and chair paintings. His 1984 portrait of the poet Philip Larkin hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and in 2012 he held a major retrospective there, called A handbook of modern life.
We visited him in his south London studio, where we chatted to the artist about sailing ships, road signs and new music.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been making sculptures for the first time; wooden ships, ferries and cruise liners. They’re inspired by a visit to a cliff top church in Corsica, the Church of Saint Julia. Inside, there’s a wooden boat, a votive offering made by a sailor. It’s not a very big sculpture – it sits on a bit of sea made of painted plaster, held up on a bracket – but I was struck by it. I couldn’t get it out of my head. My father was in the Navy so that may be it. For the last three or four years I’ve been making paintings of a ship because it interested me, and I’ve carried on with it.
A ship is a little bit like a studio, and it made me think that being at sea is a bit like being an artist, adrift from many of the things you recognise, from the world as you know it, even from your upbringing – although you never quite escape that. But I like being in a studio on my own, and closing the door on other people, thinking thoughts that don’t conform to anything. It’s a space to experiment.
I suppose I show comparatively rarely and I keep coming back to the portrait.
What’s your earliest memory of art?
I have always painted, I never grew out of it. I remember my mum took me to the Tate Gallery (what is now Tate Britain), when I was 10 or 11. There was an exhibition of the John Hay Whitney Collection and there was a Van Gogh self-portrait. I don’t even know if I had heard of Van Gogh. The portrait had a lapis blue background, and I was just transfixed. I don’t know what it was that got to me, perhaps something of the directness of the painting.
Many years later, I talked to mum about this experience, and she said she still had the catalogue. I almost didn’t want to look at the portrait for fear of breaking the spell, but then I did. It wasn’t a fierce portrait, as van Gogh can be. It was quiet, and something about it must have spoken to a 10-year-old. It was almost conspiratorial, as if it were saying, “Come on in, the water’s fine…” But it obviously made me think, “that’s what I’m going to do.”
I still think Van Gogh is top, and I am still trying.