Oxonian artist Jenny Urquhart (St Hilda’s, 1991) explores the creative process that led to the painting that currently adorns the cover of Oxford Today. The commission was intended to relate to a poem by Sir Andrew Motion, but also to be a work of figurative art in its own right rather than merely, in some reductive sense, an illustration. The broader objective was to make Oxford Today the site of an original tribute to the very many members of the University who either fought or were killed or wounded in the Great War, 1914–18.

By Jenny Urquhart

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I had been pondering Sir Andrew Motion poem’s ‘Setting the Scene’, and had quite a vivid picture in my head of the cover composition. In summary, the picture tells of a devastated deserted village, from which emerges a very much alive (but slightly crazed-looking) hare.

The focal point of the image is the hare’s lit-up head and ears. (Bizarrely one of my very earliest memories, aged about three, is of a hare being knocked down by a car and lying at the side of the road. Its head and ears, although seemingly intact, were bright red with blood. Its eyes were wide open, staring into space as if still alive. I was understandably very upset by this and refused to walk along that stretch of road for months — and even now still have recurring dreams featuring that hare!)

In the picture, I knew the ears of the hare would be bright red, almost bright pink, with the blood vessels branching out, mirroring the remains of trees and their branches behind it. The eyes of the hare would be extremely wide, as if it is shell-shocked by what it has experienced. The iris would be a bright red, mirroring the red of the ears — and could almost remind you of a poppy, with a black central pupil. I chose this particular stance as it suggests the hare is momentarily paused in mid-action, as opposed to stopping and sitting.

In front of the hare is a patch of uninviting undergrowth, featuring bramble branches curling over each other like barbed wire. There is the odd bramble leaf, and dotted amongst the barbed branches are round, red, unripe blackberries . . . which mirror the red of the hare’s eyes. I thought to keep the plant forms quite bold and simple.

The outline of the hare is lit up with bright sunshine (the sun being just out of view and low down in the sky, towards the right of the picture).

Cover story

Behind the hare stand deserted ruins, one of which is a church, identified only by the remaining arched window still intact. Amongst the ruined buildings are the remains of trees, with the extremities of their branches missing. I wanted a slight suggestion of the famous Paul Nash painting We are Making a New World — repeated vertical tree trunks/columns with shell holes in the ground between, also possibly in a slightly Futurist style. 

I had been reading about Ivor Gurney in the paper, and how the desolation of the French countryside drove him to despair when he went to the trenches — not just the loss of human life. I think that applied to many of the soldiers who went to the trenches. So I wanted to include a little of the destroyed vegetation into the picture.

The sunshine would highlight the silhouettes of these natural and man-made forms, but overhead the clouds would be dark and foreboding — a warning of dark times to come.

The Oxford Today white font would stand out against the dark clouds, and the blue Oxford University square motif in the bottom right corner of the magazine would stand out against the greens and reds of the foreground plants.

Often my paintings evolve as I’m doing them, but this one was quite unusually vivid in my mind. It was a good excuse to read a little around a subject which I would usually not volunteer to read about in the papers, so as not to become too depressed! I also thought about including a bit of text collage in the background that would have slightly shown through in the background silhouettes of building and trees.

I chose not to include something as obviously symbolic as a red poppy, but rather leave the viewer to be reminded of it with the hare’s red eyes, and possibly the red blackberries.

Following requests from readers of Oxford Today, the artist can accept orders for a print of the piece. Please contact her at jenny_urquhart@hotmail.com

Cover image © Oxford University Images. Photograph © Jenny Urquhart, reproduced with kind permission.