‘Talk about Quiet’ – Humphrey Ocean

Public lecture at the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury – 23/9


Humphrey Ocean’s lecture ‘Talk about Quiet’ was inspiration for critical and creative minds. There was something about his eloquence and wit with words that communicates with such clarity. Ocean’s well-put phrases lodge as you scurry needlessly to record them by pen. This made me ponder how it always seems to be that the best artists also make the greatest of speakers and authors. Ironically, midway through, he stated, looking himself up and down, ‘I can wave my arms and try to explain things, but I’m irrelevant and redundant,’ and this was the most resonating thought projected. Appropriately that was the concept behind the title ‘Talk about Quiet’ and is the argument I’ve introduced in my Re-Presenting art discussion – art must speak for itself. He later proclaimed, ‘the worst possible thing is language’ because we all die, and then only the art is left and not the commentary.


Humphrey was introduced as being a contemporary artist despite his deceptive timeless appearance, and use of outdated tools and materials. A man in his late 50s, Ocean interestingly made no declaration of finding inspiration from outside of his own lifetime. Many of his most recent works are of residential buildings around his home in South London. Beautiful cornices from hundreds of years gone he said he cannot relate to, but a 1960s semi-detached home, built in his lifetime, he can understand, he can connect with. Similarly with ruffs he is not bothered, because T-shirts are his standing point. He does not hide his age.


Secondly, he paints as well as thinks like a contemporary artist. Pointing up to the projection of a portrait from his new series Peggy’s Birthday, he claims his art is the nearest thing to a colour photograph demonstrating the wit of a 21st century artist. He continues: ‘…just through my eyes and not hard steel and glass.’ His interpretation of the subject – a seated figure is not an outline and inner detail, it is areas of colour only, which form a form. Also as though delirious he claimed, ‘The only difference between me and Gainsborough is that I can go 60 miles per hour and he couldn’t.’ Ocean refreshingly doesn’t refer to standards in art. I am still baffled to the inclusion of that in relation to his talk.


For me he embodies my ideas about artists and not just because he reminds me uncannily of the principle at the Ruskin, Oxford. His appearance is stereotypical – tortoiseshell wayfarers come Harry Potter spectacles; healthy dark and expressive eyebrows; a farming flat cap, despite professing his love of urban London; and a long fashion-less black coat. Furthermore, he talks of people and places as if he knows the most important, most intimately –Clyfford Still, Paul and Linda McCartney and Richard Hamilton. This did not lead me to conclude arrogance on his part because we were reminded of the description Nick Hornby gave of him – ‘almost too gentle and polite to have talent,’ which seems to me to be a strangely comic and true observation about the art industry.

One Response to “‘Talk about Quiet’ – Humphrey Ocean”
  1. About Humphrey Ocean: Humphrey Ocean is exhibiting at the Sidney Cooper Gallery at Canterbury Christ Church University this autumn. He will show new paintings set in South London, a series of etchings he has recently started making, and a series of portraits collectively titled 'Peggy's Birthday'. Ocean studied at one of the UCA's founder institutions, the Canterbury College of Art between 1970 and 1973. He was later awarded an Honorary Fellowship in 2002 by the Kent Institute of Art & Design. He won the then Imperial Tobacco, now BP Portrait Award, in 1982; has work at the National Portrait Gallery in London and Edinburgh, V&A and Imperial War Museum. He has painted Sir Paul McCartney and Philip Larkin, as well as his work being used for the cover of McCartney’s solo album ‘Memory Almost Floor.’

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