The woman who risked her health to paint a church ceiling mural

Pamela Holmes. Picture: Nigel Sutton.

Pamela Holmes. Picture: Nigel Sutton. - Credit: Nigel Sutton

From the outside, St Mary’s in Huntingfield, Suffolk, looks like any other village church.

But inside, Christian worshippers look up to a ceiling covered in spectacular spiritual and religious artwork.

It was here that inspiration struck for Gospel Oak author Pamela Holmes one cold New Year’s Day in 2011, as she wondered who had painted the beautiful imagery.

She found the answer in a small leaflet: a vicar’s wife, Mildred Holland, had taken six years to complete the mural by herself by standing on a 70-foot ladder in the 1860s – but the details were sorely lacking.

Pamela’s curiosity was piqued.

“I went to the British Library and spent many months researching about the church and Mildred Holland,” she says. “There was not a lot to find out so I read around the topic. I read about Victorian parishes, the Reformation, post-Reformation, rural vicars, and the lives of vicars in Suffolk.”

The result of her months of painstaking research is The Huntingfield Paintress, a novel based on the true story of Mildred Holland and the parish church of Huntingfield, released last month.

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It follows Mildred as she finds her new life in Suffolk rather dull after the eight years she has spent travelling around Europe with her vicar husband, William Holland.

Unable to have a child, a chance encounter sparks Mildred’s creativity and she embarks on the almost-Herculean task of painting the church ceiling, defying her husband and mistrustful locals.

A feminist icon of the mid-1800s, perhaps?

“I think she’s a feminist,” says Pamela, who is married to cartoonist Kipper Williams. “It suggests the vicar couldn’t control his wife nor that he could provide for her.

“Morally, was it unacceptable? Socially, was it unacceptable?

“She had to really overcome her husband’s concerns, and her friend’s concerns, and people in the village thinking: ‘Who do they think they are?’”

According to rumour, by the time she was nearly finished with the mural, Mildred had become unable to stand from the pain of painting upright for so long and had to work lying down.

With little information to go on, Pamela based the story on the few facts she was able to unearth.

“There were some things I knew for sure, some things I could surmise, and for the rest, I tried to explain what would drive her up this 70-foot ladder.

“She felt she had to do it to survive, to be happy and to express herself.”

The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes is published by Urbane Publications (£8.99).