Motoring art: Jen Orpin

| 5 Jun 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: Jen Orpin

A long motorway drive can be a hellish experience, particularly with heavy traffic or a breakdown, but when the route is clear they can be dream expressways.

Since the M1 opened in 1959, motorways have inspired musicians and film-makers, but rarely artists.

Now, Manchester-based Jen Orpin has bucked that trend with her atmospheric studies of motorway bridges, which, after the first was displayed in 2018, now number more than 600.

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: Jen Orpin

‘We’ll Cross That Bridge’ by artist Jen Orpin, who finds inspiration in motorway bridges

Last year, two bridge pieces were accepted for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, and Jen had her first international show this May, at the Art Busan in Seoul, South Korea.

The dramatic series of works was inspired by a regular road trip over three months in 2015 to visit her father in hospital following his stroke.

“Every Monday I’d head down from Manchester to Surrey via the M56, M6, M42, M40 and M25, then return on Friday,” she recalls.

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: Jen Orpin

‘On Thin Ice’ is one of the night-time studies that has followed Jen’s bridge paintings

“It was a solo drive spent trying to process all my emotions and memories, but the bridges became markers for distance, and friendly faces,” says Jen.

“My first road trips were in the back of Dad’s Ford Cortina in the 1980s to visit our family in Sunderland.

“With my twin sister and brother, we were bundled into the back – early in the morning so Dad could beat the traffic.

“There were no seatbelts and we were always sliding around on the vinyl upholstery.”

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: Jen Orpin

‘No War But Class War’ by Jen Orpin is on permanent display in the Manchester Art Gallery

All those experiences became the focus of her bridge paintings.

The reaction to the compositions has been remarkable, capped by the Manchester Art Gallery acquiring a painting of the Denton M60 bridge entitled No War But Class War for its collection.

Jen’s paintings uncorked an emotive response, starting with an early inclusion in the prestigious Westmorland Landscape Prize exhibition.

“When one lady saw my M6 painting she was moved to tears,” says Jen.

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: Jen Orpin

‘Forton Gateway’ depicts the M6 motorway services at Lancaster

“Her father had been involved in the construction of the bridge featured in the piece, and it stopped her in her tracks,” she continues.

“She just had to buy it. To deliver the painting we met at the services on the M1 and spent an emotional hour chatting.”

Interest rapidly grew after The Observer featured Jen’s work: “I was inundated with emails from readers relating stories of their favourite bridges.”

Commissions rapidly began to grow, including global interest from Modesto, California, for a painting of the historic city arch.

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: Jen Orpin

‘On Top Of The World’ is one of Jen’s night-driving artworks

It’s impossible to sketch or paint on location, so Jen enlists friends to drive her on road trips.

“I never switch off, and take 10-15 shots of each bridge as we pass,” she explains.

“Traffic is not part of my narrative, but lighting at different times and details such as graffiti fascinate me.

“People are very specific about the time of the year and weather for a commission.”

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: Jen Orpin

‘Lurid Helch’ captures the dramatic Lyne Bridge railway crossing over the M25 at Chertsey in Surrey

As a break from the often brutal concrete and dynamic lines of the motorway series, Jen has diverted to night-driving studies.

Focusing on the shadows and the effects of headlights on trees and stone walls has created a dramatic, almost cinematic character.

“It’s a different challenge,” she says.

“I love the Lake District. With no light pollution, the landscapes have a romantic fascination.”

Jen’s prints are available from her Etsy shop. For more, see or @jenorpinpainter on Instagram


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