Recounting Stories Through Art

Recounting Stories Through Art
Artist Jill Tattersall has her first solo show at the 1780 Lower State Sugar Works Museum in March.


by Claudia Colli

The Charcoal Sellers at Meyers
The Charcoal Sellers at Meyers

In 1965 BVI artist Jill Tattersall, along with her three young boys and husband, surgeon Robin Tattersall, sailed from the UK to St. Lucia on a banana boat. They were headed for Tortola where Robin was taking up a position as the island's surgeon. From St. Lucia they boarded a 28-foot sailboat and made their way up the island chain. When they sailed into the BVI, Jill felt like she had reached home. "It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen," she says.

Only newly discovered by a fledgling tourism industry, Tortola was still a frontier. The houses on Main Street abutted the harbor, there was a fruit and vegetable market where the Road Town jetty stands and many residents still traversed the island by horse and donkey. Sailing yachts, like the Tattersall's, were a novelty in Road Harbour and elsewhere around the islands.
The Tattersall family lived in a large purple building above Road Town called the Bouganvillea that doubled as their home and a plastic surgery clinic.

Jill's pioneering spirit has continued over the decades and at the age of 81 she is having her first solo art show. Organized by Lisa Gray from The Gallery on Main Street and held at the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum, the exhibit's opening is on March 1st and will continue through the month.

"It's all about stories," says Jill whose 40 watercolors in the exhibit are impressions of her early days here, especially the beauty and innocence of life in the islands in the mid-60s and early 70s. Working from her own photographs from the period, she often takes artistic license, adding people or foliage that she thinks belong or just feels right.

Climbing to the Bouganvillea
Climbing to the Bouganvillea

Each painting is accompanied by a detailed description along with reminiscences of the story behind each work. Of her painting Climbing to the Bougainvillea, she writes, "When I was living in the Bougainvillea in the 70s I took a photograph looking upward from the steep uneven steps. When I unearthed this photograph, I visualized a family toiling upwards towards the battlemented path we called 'The Soldiers' Walk" on their way to see the doctor.

The sights and smells she encountered during her travels around the island are depicted in The Charcoal Seller at Meyers. "In the mid 60s I remember charcoal fires burning everywhere with that evocative smell of Africa, and every house had its coal pot in which most cooking was done."

Jill studied painting when young, and remembers that one of her teachers, Sir Alfred Munnings who specialized in painting racehorses, "made me look at things in a different way." But rather than continue to paint, she switched to writing because "My sister was a painter and was very good at it," she explains. She became a writer of historical mystery romances as a young mother in 1950s England.. The books were very well researched she said, and one of them, Lyonesse Abbey made it to the New York Times best seller list. She continued to write when she came to Tortola, and in addition to mysteries, has written several books on Caribbean history including ones on Blackbeard, Black Sam Bellamy and Captain Kidd. She has found though, that she prefers painting as a way of recounting her life in the islands since she can do it in a purely visual way.

Hat Makers of East End
Hat Makers of East End

"It was such a paintable place," she explains. She took art lessons with Maryann Miller, a painter living on Tortola at the time, and sold her first painting at her gallery in Road Town. "It wasn't until after my divorce," that I began painting in earnest," she says. She took some additional painting classes with Roger Burnett, well-known for his island watercolors, and joined a painting group. The painting group was a very good transition from writing, she believes. "I was inspired by its beauty and color and I could use the same structure and creativity."

She was also inspired by the people that she met and impressed by the traditional crafts that they practiced. In her painting, the Hat Makers of East End, she depicts Katherine Lettsome, a former head teacher at East End, who she describes as, "a wonderful woman and a well-known hat maker." She used to visit her in Long Look, and watch as she braided the fronds of the white teyer palm.

Jill's son Johnny, an Emmy award winning cinematographer for the television show Survivor, will be filming the opening of the art exhibit as part of a documentary on his mother and the painting process. He is also creating a website for her which will bring her art to a larger audience. It seems at 81, Jill's adventures have only just begun.

An opening reception for "Memories of the BVI" will be held at the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum on March 1st from 5:30 – 7:30pm. The show continues until the end of the month.