Joanna May: in praise of hares

The brown hare prefers farmland and woodland habitats and prefers to venture out when nobody is around. It is the fastest mammal in Britain and since its arrival here 2000 years ago it has built itself into our folklore and mythology. Emma Clegg talks to artist Joanna May about why we are fascinated by hares and how they appear in her work.

It was 2000 yeas ago that hares were first introduced to Britain by the Romans and since then they have woven themselves enduringly into our country’s folklore and mythology. In fact, hares were originally native to Africa, Eurasia and North America, and their zoological order Lagomorpha is believed to have a lineage of 90 million years, making it likely that their ancestors once shared the earth with the dinosaurs.

There is a story that Queen Boudica consulted the entrails of a hare, interpreting them as an augury of victory in her uprising against the Romans in ad61. In Cornish legend, the appearance of a white hare in harbours at the end of the day was taken as a warning of tempest or of a deceased broken-hearted maiden coming to haunt her disloyal lover. The character of the hare is also engrained within our literature, from Aesop’s fable of The Hare and the Tortoise to the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland and the Arctic Hare in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

It’s not surprising that hares in children’s fiction have strong characters, because this is an animal that has immense speed, majestic characteristics (including its long, black-tipped ears) and one that is visibly connected to the land. The brown hare is Britain’s fastest land mammal, reaching speeds of up to 45mph, driven by its powerful hind legs. Its mystery has been accentuated by the fact that it likes to hide in the shadows and prefers to feed at night or in the ebbing evenings of summer. Their ‘madness’ during the breeding season in March where they are seen ‘boxing’ – a mating ritual where unreceptive females fend off amorous males – has contributed much to their narrative characters, and to their being a favourite subject for artists.

Above: Joanna May in her Devizes gallery

Local wildlife artist Joanna May has adopted the hare in her own artwork, initially when she opened up her gallery in Wiltshire in 2001. Joanna explains, “It all started with the hare – I painted the first one when I opened my gallery in Marlborough. I was thirsty to paint the classic hare boxing scene and show off my forte of creating fur detail. At the time I had no idea that in Wiltshire we had such a large population and I was taking a gamble not knowing if wildlife art would sell in its own right, but I struck gold.”

Joanna found her Malborough gallery almost by accident. Wanting to create prints of her work, Joanna asked a local gallery for their advice. The gallery owner mentioned that he was leaving the gallery and was looking for someone to take it over. Joanna agreed to take it on the spot. Even before the gallery opened, she tells me that people were knocking on the door having seen the hare print in the window asking to buy it. “So I knew I had a successful gallery before I opened,” Joanna explains.

When Joanna created her initial hare paintings, she photographed them herself. “I used to get on the tractor with the farmer and he took me to an area where they were. I had my telephoto lens and the hares were so used to the tractor going up and down the fields that you could take amazing shots quite close up without them being threatened.”

As a wildlife illustrator Joanna’s work was initially focused on hyperrealism, but the work in her current Devizes gallery is softer and more narrative. She paints her wildlife pictures using a combination of airbrushing to create form and shape and shadow and light with layered textures, and the detail – fur in the case of the hares – is added with gouache applied with a very fine zero sable brush. Hares feature large in her work, but eagles, owls, and hedgehogs, along with many other animals, have all had a place in a career that has seen her work sold at Christies Auctions, given her a listing in Who’s Who in Art and a collection of celebrity clients including Raymond Blanc, Rula Lenska and Chris Packham.

Above: The Hare on the Moon – A Treasure Hunt Book, illustrated by Joanna May
Above: Hares have always been a source of fascination – this naturalistic limestone carving of a hare was used as a standard weight for measuring grain in the marketplace. From China,1333. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 1983

With a population of less than 800,000 hares in Britain (figures are uncertain; it could be far less), there are pockets of brown hares around Britain, and Wiltshire is lucky to have a strong population across its chalk downs and arable land. Joanna explains that the lifespan of a hare is typically just 2–3 years and that they have minimal legal protection because they are considered as game and can be shot throughout the year, including through their breeding season. Joanna says, “The natural way of growing crops used to allow space for the hares to live among the corn, but now it’s so tight they can’t do that. And the reintroduction of the Red Kite is a big threat, because they live above ground, unlike a rabbit, so they rely completely on speed and flight.”

While Joanna has painted so many hares because her clients love them, she is also fascinated by this elusive species: “I love the folklore around hares,” says Joanna. “There is no other animal that has so many stories around it, and this adds to its mystique and people’s fascination with the animal.”

In 2019 Joanna published her book The Hare on the Moon, a treasure hunt book with elaborate illustrations, in the style of the famous 1970s Masquerade book. Readers embark on a mystical journey, with the hare and the help of the man on the moon, to unlock the star signs and find the treasures that help to release her. The prize for the first person to correctly identify the location is anoriginal Joanna May painting – Three Hares on a Golden Moon no one as yet has found the correct location!

Joanna’s hares have recently been launched as a range of eight tiles by tile and stone specialists Ca’ Pietra, who took a selection of the classic poses from her work, including the boxing hares and the one included on the cover illustration from her book. They were commissioned as a Wiltshire-based range of ceramic tiles by Ca’ Pietra after her big hare print was seen in the window of her Devizes gallery. The hare was the obvious choice as a subject because it has been the focus of her best-selling work. Joanna isolated 25 images herself, taking the backgrounds out, and sent them to Ca’ Pietra who chose eight images with hares in different positions – including one running, one crouching and one lying down.

The hand-fired ceramic tiles measure 12.5 x 12.5cm and you can see the range of eight tiles at the Artisans of Devizes x Ca’ Pietra showroom in Devizes, or on the Ca’ Pietra website. A collection of hare coasters is also available from the Joanna May Gallery.

Wiltshire Hares by Joanna May – Interview for Ca’ Pietra

Joanna May Gallery, 16 Northgate Street, Devizes, Wiltshire SN10 1JL (open Thursday–Saturday, 10am–5pm),;; Artisans of Devizes, Stonebridge House, Banda Trading Estate, Nursteed Road, Devizes SN10 3DY,