My mate Humphrey

English art schools have given us so much. The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Ian Dury, Kilburn and the High Roads. And the Kilburns gave us Humphrey Ocean, the art school rocker who became... an artist
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The Independent Culture

Pub quiz question: find the link between Stiff Records - the anarchic label which provided an early home for Elvis Costello, The Damned and Ian Dury, among others - and Philip Larkin, our Greatest Living Poet, probably, even now. (Those of you feverishly trying to remember whether Rat Scabies ever had a gig as Larkin's editor at Faber are barking up the wrong tree entirely, I'm afraid.) The answer is artist Humphrey Ocean, who, Stiff completists may remember, recorded a single for the label before going on to paint the unanswerable portrait of Larkin that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. "Whoops-a-Daisy" (b/w "the umpteenth and some say definitive 'Battle of Davy Crockett'") was the last Ocean single, but there are other Ocean portraits - McCartney, Tony Benn - in the NPG's collection.

Ocean works in a studio at the bottom of someone else's garden in Stockwell, south London, and we sit there surrounded by stacks of Ocean's work and listening to an old ska compilation. He talks with quiet animation about all sorts of things, as his art-school generation is peculiarly able to do - about Merle Haggard, and Rothko, and Wallace Stevens; when the phone rings he talks in gratifying detail about pencils and frames. If you loved art (or indeed poetry, or music), he'd be your favourite teacher at school; if you didn't, you'd spend summer double periods reflecting your watch-face off the top of his bald head without fear of reprisal. He seems too enthusiastic, and way too gentle and polite, to have a talent.

His talent is a rare one (rarer, perhaps, than it should be, in a properly pluralist world): he's a figurative painter of distinction and reputation whose work is clearly and reassuringly contemporary. In other words, you don't feel daft or hopelessly square for liking it, and given the current climate of cultural fear - wherein much modern art is at its most useful when used as a stick with which to beat the fuddy-duddy or the credulous, depending on where you stand - that is a blessing indeed. (Beating people with sticks is tremendous fun, granted, but you can only look at a stick for so long.) Ocean admits that there's an abstract expressionist in there somewhere, fighting to get out, and maybe that helps: his simplicity and solid blocks of colour quell any fears that he thinks proper painting is when the eyes follow you round the room. And his eye for a subject is quirky enough to make you breathe easy, too. Lord Volvo and his Estate, the portrait which won the 1982 Imperial Tobacco (now BP) Portrait Award and set him on his way, features a motley bunch of folks - some of Ocean's old art students, Slim the squeezebox player from the Boothill Foot-Tappers - loafing about in the vicinity of a vintage car. Ocean has painted people sitting on buses and tubes, and lying down, sick or drunk, on cross-Channel ferries. You know these people, and you know these colours.

And, duly moored and pacified, you can relax, and love the paintings. (And when was the last time you properly loved - as opposed to admired, or concentrated on, or were provoked or troubled by, a contemporary painting? Fibber.) You may not, of course, but at least they possess the potential to be loved, not least because they are clearly painted with a great deal of fondness for the follies of humankind.

Ocean is possibly unique: he's a former member of an art school band who went on to become an artist. The art school band was Kilburn and the High Roads, whose lead singer was Ocean's tutor, Ian Dury; they got together at the suggestion of the art school's social secretary, who didn't have a support act for Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets at the Christmas party. The Kilburns were pleasantly surprised by their own quality, and paintbrushes were put back into the jam jar. Almost immediately, though, just as the band had started gigging outside of Canterbury, Dury fired Ocean because he still had a year of his course left to do. In the summer of 1973, diploma in his pocket, Ocean was rehired, and spent the next six months touring with a band which, Ocean says wryly, "were so good we couldn't be recorded". The Kilburns played a distinctive, very English dance music - Chuck Berry and Alma Cogan covers, some free jazz and songs about things like an insurrection in a stately home, and in their own small way probably helped, along with Dr Feelgood and a couple of other bands, to clear the apparently impenetrable path from Genesis to the Sex Pistols.

Ocean left the band after a riotous tour with The Who, scared that it would be easy to end up trundling round the pubs and clubs of Britain for the rest of a working life. His Stiff single was a one-off: he was persuaded down to the studio by Dury, who wrote the words to "Whoops-a-Daisy", and former Kilburn Russell Hardy. "Chaz Jankel arranged it, and we split everything four ways. Stiff sold 10,000 copies and we each got £12.56. I hope they had some jolly nice lunches."

I asked how he made a living between the Kilburns and 1982, when he won the Imperial Tobacco Portrait Award, and there is a long pause. It's so easy, one thinks, for struggling artists to spend whole decades doing nothing very much. "Gosh. Now that's a good question." He thinks. "My granny left me £300, and I made that last as long as I could." He thinks some more. "Ummm ... Yes, and I taught for a day a week. I drove round all the art colleges in the south of England asking for a job ... Ah, and I did a couple of album covers." The lost Ocean years are beginning to come back to him now. "There was a 10CC one and a McCartney one ... Oh, and because of the McCartney cover, I was asked to go to America with Wings for a year and do an artist-on-tour thing." There are, one suspects, very few of us who would have temporarily mislaid our time on the road with one of the biggest names in the history of popular music, and it says much for his anecdote-packed life that Ocean was able to do so.

We talk about Larkin, whom Ocean was commissioned to paint by the National Portrait Gallery; he describes the time he spent with the great man as "the funniest month of my life". "He'd bought this house in Hull with his royalties, and it was the most anonymous, least poetic house I'd ever seen in my life. He blamed it for everything - he never wrote a word there in 10 years. I didn't know what to say about it. Eventually I came up with '1961?', 'cos I know a bit about houses. And he said," - and here Ocean takes on Larkin's famously lugubrious tone - "'No, 1959. But I know what you mean.'" Larkin wanted to know all about McCartney, and they talked about jazz. Ocean liked Roland Kirk and Larkin preferred Pee Wee Russell, but they got on anyway. "He had these Tannoy speakers ... Tannoys! The south London dub speaker of choice!" Did he like the portrait? "I think he did, yes. He turned to Monica and said, 'And in this house, too!'"

For the last year, Ocean has been artist-in-residence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the fruits of his labours can be seen in an invigorating and entirely lovable exhibition entitled "how's my driving". (Significantly, no number is provided enabling us to register a complaint.) The show is so called because the artist's route to work has provided him with much of the material: a couple of south London's most Larkinesque houses and office blocks have experienced the Ocean breeze, and the treatment has given them a charm that will make those who live on the dreary edges of a metropolis wonder why the heart doesn't sing every time they walk to the newsagent's. You know those horrible 1960s green-and-glass office blocks? Well, it turns out they're not horrible after all. It turns out that we should treasure them.

The show takes the form of a witty, bright conversation with Dulwich's surprisingly classy permanent collection. There are sketches of paintings by Teniers and Brouwer, and an answer to Gainsborough's portrait The Linley Sisters, with Ocean's two extremely contemporary-looking daughters sitting in for the original models. And the Teniers, a winter scene, also inspired the four-painting sequence of buildings, one for each season. "We used to talk at art school about how you didn't get it together as a painter until you were 40. It made us rather morose when we were 19. Well, I think I've got it together now I'm 50. This show is my New Boots ...."

It's a very helpful description, and not only because "how's my driving" has the feel of an album - a couple of cover versions, some light, quick, filler interludes (a series of drawings from Ocean's Dot Book), and a central sequence, the four seasonal paintings, that the record company would want to release as singles. One also gets the feeling that Ian Dury would have loved this show, and his influence is palpable. This is hardly surprising - Dury was, after all, Ocean's tutor - but it is not Dury the teacher one can feel, but Dury the exemplar of a certain sort of late-20th-century art-school Englishness. The collection demonstrates a love for the past, but it isn't afraid of the present either; it's allusive and accessible and it's got soul. The Sixties art-school bunch didn't seem to think it was clever to pretend they knew nothing.

"There are lots of other houses in the area I could have painted," Ocean says of Autumn, which depicts a twilit and defiantly suburban home. "But none of them were as funny as this one." And though it's true that there is a mournful comedy in there, the picture tugs at the heart, too. Listen to Dury's "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards", say, and you experience the same sort of thing: the song makes you laugh, but those solos are sweet.

When I went to visit Ocean, I had just finished reading The Eclipse of Art, Julian Spalding's elegant, persuasive and timely blast at all things Saatchi and Serota; in his conclusion, Spalding promises that when the shadow of conceptualism passes, we will be dazzled by the imaginative light of the artists working in our backyard.

I put this to Ocean, but he is having none of it, of course: he has a nice life, his paintings are sought by collectors, and in any case he finds the current climate much healthier than the Eighties, "when everything was so referential, and everyone was walking around with Gogol sticking out of their pockets. Not that there's anything wrong with Gogol." In any case, Ocean is perfectly content to let history sort it all out. "I mean, people don't look at a Rembrandt and think, 'Well, I don't know what to make of that.' And they're not interested just because he's old, either. You look at a Rembrandt and your knees shake. That's what it's about."

©Nick Hornby

Humphrey Ocean's 'how's my driving' is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, from 16 July to 14 September

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