© Humphrey Ocean. All rights reserved, DACS 2023.


Humphrey Ocean (1951 – )


132.5 X 244.5 CM
Accession number


Painted over a number of years in his patch of sleepy south London, Humphrey Ocean’s William Blake is an ode to the unprepossessing, and the fascinations dormant there. [1] Across two and a half metres, the view takes in a block of flats on the corner of Wood Vale and Forest Hill Road in Crystal Palace. It’s a view that Ocean would pass every day on the way home. Streetlamp, lawns and aerials (key suburban vocabulary) take their place under a blank sky, and ought to add up to a picture of the quiet life. Yet those details and the twiddle of 1950s railings skirt the main subject, the flats, whose frontage is allowed to flicker and fade away to the right, hinting at other layers.

I like to paint where human beings have been, where they've done something to a place. I don't necessarily like all the buildings or things that I paint, but I'm fascinated by how they got there, and how they've been colonised and changed by people since. And when I'm standing on these streets in south London, there are no other people out there with easels, interested in making these pictures, except for me. [2]

Unpeopled as this landscape is, it is enlivened by antecedents. Ocean’s flats were built on the site of an old railway station on the line to Crystal Palace; the line had been razed in the 1950s, but still, this is Pissarro territory. Camille Pissarro had taken refuge from the Franco-Prussian War in Norwood and seemed rather underwhelmed with the new railway and the suburban creep. In Lordship Lane Station (1871), for example, red-brick terraces, grass banks and the train’s vapour trail slope away from the railway line - it’s all a bit sluggish. There is a ghost of that steam train, perhaps, in Ocean’s picture, in the way the trees drift off in a haze. With the title, William Blake, Ocean takes imaginative repossession of an everyday prospect.

I named the painting William Blake in the way councils name blocks of flats, but it is my name not theirs. The land it is built on would, before the railway, have been the part of the rising ground of Peckham Rye that William Blake walked on and had visions. The city of London, 'the golden city' of his imagination, is visible from up here high on the southern flank of the Thames Valley. And it is golden: in a sweeping left to right panorama of the low-lying architecture of London the square mile stands out as where the money is. Canary Wharf is beginning to catch up. [3]

[1] In 1997 Ocean collaborated with Jock McFayden and Will Self on Urbasuburba at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester - looking at the mundanity and complexities of life in British suburbs.
[2] ‘Royal Academician Humphrey Ocean on how he paints’, The Observer, 20/9/09
[3] The artist writing to Dorothy Feaver, January 2010.