Humphrey Ocean, elected a Royal Academician in 2004. is best known as a portraitist, with a variety of famous sitters to his name including commissions for the National Portrait Gallery of poet Philip Larkin (1984) and politician Tony Benn (1996). Having won first prize in the Imperial Tobacco Portrait Award 1982 (what is now the BP Portrait Award), the NPG commissioned a portrait of Paul McCartney (1983); Ocean places him in a soft pink sweater, backed by pink petals, catchingsomething of the ex-Beatle’s puppyish demeanor. It is a sensitive characterisation that reflects Ocean’s grounding in the venerable tradition of art-school-rock-group crossovers.

Ocean, born Humphrey Anthony Erdeswick Butler-Bowdon, is from Sussex and studied at Canterbury School of Art from 1970-1973. As a first year student his tutor, Ian Dury, was struck by his Robin Hood look, and enlisted him as rhythm guitarist in a new band, Kilburn and the High Roads [1]. With Dury as lead singer, the band achieved cult status as a pub rock band, and have a place on the path towards punk later in the decade. Ocean took time off from the band to finish his degree, and recover from a bout of meningitis, but coined a catchy new sir-name and rejoined for a final six months in the latter half of 1973, for a stint as support act on The Who’s Quadrophenia tour.

Peter Blake, who had taught Dury at the Royal College in the mid-1960s and was responsible for one of the Beatles’ most famous album covers, urged Ocean to stick with the Kilburns, but Ocean was to reject albums in favour of painting - via sleeves. A drawing of his fronts the The Original Soundtrack (1975) by art school rock group 10cc - the drawing places a cowboy on a TV screen amid a tangle of machinery. The following year he accompanied McCartney’s solo outfit, Wings, on their American tour, and his sketch for the inner sleeve of Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976) features none other than Dury peering through by a club doorway. More recently, his aquatint Black Love Chair, was used by McCartney for the cover of his album Memory Almost Full (2007).

Other collaborations have seen Ocean reach beyond a fine art context. As a result of a trip to Northern Brazil with the anthropologist Stephen Nugent, they conjoined text and drawings in a travel book. Collaborating with the scientist and filmmaker John Tchalenko, Ocean made a painting of two film-makers and their simultaneous film-portrait of him at work - shown in the exhibition Double-Portrait at Tate Liverpool (1992). In 1999, he worked with Tchalenko again, on an exploration of the cognitive interaction between an artist's eyes, hand and brain culminating in the exhibition The Painter's Eye at the NPG. Ocean’s controlled or unconscious responses were measured on three different machines, with the results then being compared to the reactions of non-artists.

Based in South London, Ocean has found familiar routes to be a source of inspiration, as celebrated in the exhibition ‘how’s my driving’, a series of works made as artist in residence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2003. In tune with the graphic sensibilities of Peter Blake, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield, Ocean’s style and subjects often tap into a particular kind of Englishness - not dissimilar to that evoked by the lyrics of England’s Glory, a belter by Kilburn and the Highroads from 1973, whose reference points include Vera Lynn, Robin Hood, Baden-Powell and Yorkshire pud.

[1] Richard Balls, Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll: the Life of Ian Dury (Omnibus Press, London, 2001) p. 89