Bristol Artist Interview: Jenny Urquhart

Jenny is one of The Bristol Shop’s most prolific artists, she currently has 58 products listed with us, including beautiful, colourful works of art, most of which have a strong Bristolian theme, coasters & placemats and even a Bristol colouring book!

Recently Viv Kennedy caught up with her to find out more about her inspirations, practice and latest news.

I am told that you didn’t pick up a paint brush until 2010, I’m not sure I believe that’s true...

(laughs) Oh dear, that sounds like such a boast doesn’t it?

I did GCSE art but hadn’t painted anything since then; it’s quite a while ago...19...1990...1992 I think. I had a career in teaching (Jenny was a biology teacher for ten years) but decided to give it up when my kids were small; I just couldn’t juggle it all.

The original plan was to become an A level biology tutor, because obviously I needed an income, but I started painting in my spare time, then a friend bought a picture, and it all snowballed from there.

About three or four months after that I did a little stall at the school bazaar and sold about a thousand pounds worth in two hours. At that point I was starting to think “oh my gosh; this is it!”

It’s just grown and grown. I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing...hmmm...I probably shouldn’t say that...but I’ve had no training, I just sort of make it up as I go along.

I’m a great believer in making it up as you go along.

Yeah, I just kind of wing it really, but it’s been a massive learning curve. It’s been amazing.

A lot of your paintings and collages feature balloons. Where does that fascination come from? Do you fly yourself?

I had my first flight a few years ago and thought it was the most amazing thing. Originally I used to Google image search pictures of Bristol and would work from those but going up in a hot air balloon allows you to see, with your own eyes, the landscape of Bristol and a lot of the views that I paint are from an angle that could be from a hot air balloon.

I just love them. I love their shape. I think they work well in a composition. And Bristol is really well known for its balloons...

They are very Bristol...

Plus, people like them, so I keep putting them in.

Looking through the prints that you have listed on The Bristol Shop there are three, maybe four, quite distinct styles, including paintings, collage and, I think, photography – are the Croyde Bay pictures photographs?

Yes they are. I took them about 20 years ago. I did my teacher training at UWE but they sent me for work experience to Barnstaple Sixth Form College and in between teaching I used to go to the beach...Croyde and Saunton...with an old film camera. I took a whole load of photos and rediscovered them about five or six years ago. I scanned them and tweaked them in Photoshop and they’ve proved to be some of my most popular images.

I’ve painted versions too and sometimes I do mixed media versions but mostly those are just digital images.

One I was pretty sure about but there’s another one that I really couldn’t make up my mind about.

There’s a bluey one that I’ve probably fiddled with more than the others but yes, it started as a digital photo. I played with it in Photoshop, adding people, removing people, and that’s how it ended up.

People love them. People in Bristol, where we live anyway, like to think they go surfing all the time, so those pictures appeal to a suburban Bristol market I think.

In general are the different styles a chronological thing, or more mood-based?

Totally depends on my mood. I’ve recently done a fox, which is a very precise, realistic painting. If I’m in that sort of mood I’ll do something else precise but if I’m in more of a chuck the paint on mood then I’ll do more of the loose, Bristol landscapes.

I’ve learnt so much from trial and error that I’m definitely, definitely getting better. If I look back at some of my earlier stuff I can really see an improvement. It’s all been a big learning curve and I love it.

I walked past some of your work on my way to Platform 12 at Temple Meads Station a couple of weeks ago? Do you find yourself doing a double take when you see it there?

I don’t travel by train that often but I have been a few times and I’m so chuffed that I’ve got work on the platforms.

We were originally approached by the new station manager who wanted to try to make the platforms more modern, more interesting. He approached a few artists to see if they’d be willing to let some of their work be on the walls. He had no budget for it so we had to pay a small amount just to get them printed on to whatever sturdy material it is they’ve used. I said “yes, I’ll have as many spaces as I’m allowed”, so I’ve got about a dozen pictures on various platforms.

I know some of them are on the platform where the Southampton trains come in, because my Mother-in- Law spotted them as she arrived.

Yeah, I’m dead chuffed to have those there.

You took part in the last West Bristol Arts Trail – was that a good weekend?

I actually exhibited in a church, which I have done for the last two or three years. It’s Holy Trinity in Hotwells. My home isn’t actually in West Bristol; I’m more northerly, so I joined up with a group exhibiting there. I think there were 17 of us altogether in that venue.

It’s a fantastic building, one that until I was part of the Arts Trail I’d never been in. The people from the church who help organise the Arts Trail are so welcoming and friendly; they go out of their way to make us feel welcome.

It’s always a really well supported event and I normally sell masses. This is a busy time of the year for me, leading up to Christmas, and the West Bristol Arts Trail is always the first event in the calendar for the autumn season, so it’s always a popular one.

In 2015 your designs featured in both the London and Bristol Shaun in the City trails, for a total of £9,300. What was that experience like? How does it feel to know you’ve helped raise that amount of money for two excellent causes (The Grand Appeal and Wallace & Gromit’s Children’s Charity)?

Oh wow, it was great; I was so excited to be asked. I had a phone call from Nick Park’s PA to say that he’d seen my stuff and really wanted me to do a sheep. I felt really proud.

It was amazing that when I entered another design, for the London trail, that it got accepted too. Selfishly, it’s been great as a way to get my name out there but it’s also amazing to think how much money in total has been raised. It was nothing like the scale of the Gromits and I think that surprised people, but the actual trails themselves have been completely embraced by the public and, regardless of the amount of money raised, it can only be seen as a fantastic success.

I just wonder if they’re going to do another one. Who knows? What might it be next?

Was there a knock-on effect for your career as an artist?

I’d have to say I’ve had a ten-fold increase in enquiries, particularly since the Bristol trail. It’s hard to say if it’s related though as each year I think people’s interest in my work has at least doubled. Compared with three or four years ago I can’t believe how many people know my name or have seen my work. It’s brilliant. Every time someone buys something I get a tingle of excitement from knowing that people take my art seriously and want to have it in their homes.

How did your children feel about mum having sheep on the trails?

They were very proud, I think because all of their friends were talking about it.

Their stamina for the trails didn’t quite match up to that though. We didn’t try too hard to hunt them all out; it was more that we came across them when we were out and about. Some of their friends were obsessive, or perhaps it was their parents that were. My youngest son’s primary school teacher went to London and did them all in one weekend!

I’m so glad I was part of it. It’s been such a massive event and people outside Bristol have been really keen on it too. When you mention that you’ve painted one, people say “oh, wow, that must have been fantastic”, and yes it really has been.

What’s next?

Well. I’ve got a lot of new styles coming out. I’ve done a lot of Bristol stuff in the last year so I’m going to be exploring a few different subjects. I’ve been doing a lot of animals and lots of random stuff that I’ve just felt like doing. Arts funny like that, it depends a lot on what mood you’re in.

I do commissions when I’m asked to do a certain thing in a certain style but at the moment I haven’t got that many...I’ve got them out of the way and I haven’t got many on the list.

I want to do more rural landscapes too. I’ve been doing a lot of city stuff but I’m a country girl at heart so I want to do a few more Cornish and Devon scenes.

One of my favourites from your collection on The Bristol Shop is a Cornish view...the one featuring St Michaels Mount...

I love Cornwall. I’d love to live there...in the middle of the countryside...but I live in suburban Bristol so I stick pictures on my wall and pretend. It’s a bit like therapy for me because that’s where I long to be, but my cityscapes are popular...

I think one of the best things about Bristol is that it’s surrounded by countryside.

Exactly! Where we live, we’re five minutes from the countryside and we’ve got the Downs near our house as well, so that keeps us going.

Finally, this is The Bristol Shop, so I have to ask you where is your favourite place in the city?

It’s where my husband’s Gran used to live, on Sion Hill. It’s actually where Baa-loon was. That little part of Clifton Village, with the amazing view, has to be my favourite part of Bristol.

Did you get a say in where your Shauns would be located?

No, not at all, and I was so delighted. They rang or emailed me one day to say that Landmark Larry would be at Paddington Station – oh my gosh, what a brilliant, brilliant place – everybody travelling from Bristol gets off the train there. And when they said Sion Hill, I think I cried – I was definitely quite emotional.

My favourite spot in the whole of Bristol and my sheep was going to be there!

View Jenny Urquhart Collection

Bonus Video! Used with Permission of Amy at Bristol Short Stories (Thanks Amy!)

Jenny Urquhart from Bristol Short Stories on Vimeo.

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