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The Painting Of Stories


The artwork of painter and best-selling author Jill Tattersall explores the rich history and heritage of the British Virgin Islands. But as we discovered during a fascinating interview with Jill, this artist has her own intriguing story to tell, of her life and journey to the BVI over 50 years ago.


Born in Cornwall in 1931, Jill grew up on an apple orchard in Essex, United Kingdom. Her father had been Governor of Bihar and Orissa, pre-World War II in India before moving to the UK. Jill received her early education at a boarding school in Shropshire and was later sent to a finishing school in Switzerland. As a child, Jill always had a creative mind. At age 3, she had already learned to read and loved books. When she was 5, her mother taught her how to paint.

When not in school, Jill would spend her time writing and illustrating; she wrote her first book when she was just 7.

“At 7, I finally finished writing and illustrating a book about a girl who longed for her own pony and finally got her wish. My parents seemed to like the book and on my 8th birthday, I got a pony!” Jill told us.

In addition to writing, Jill thought she would become an illustrator, but because her older sister was already a painter, she decided to continue writing.

“I realised my older sister was the painter in the family, so I would be the writer. So, it seemed as if writing was a good thing to do. I wrote a long book through boarding school encouraged by all the girls reading it over my shoulder, desperate to know what would happen next,” Jill said.

Despite this, Jill was still given the opportunity to explore her artistic abilities. At age 16, Jill attended a polytechnical school where she studied foundation courses in fashion, drawing, sculpture, architecture and basic anatomy. At 18 Jill started a three-year course in occupational therapy at Oxford and while there, she met her future husband, plastic surgeon Robin Tattersall. The couple married in Essex in 1953.

During this time, Robin and Jill earned a living by modelling, when they weren’t studying. “Robin was still an unpaid medical student and we paid the rent with my dress allowance, I was an occupational therapist but no first jobs at that time were available in London so modelling was the way to go, although Robin’s rugby friends teased him for a while.”

Robin worked with top fashion models, while Jill worked for a number of prestigious women’s magazines of that time. “I trained at Cherry Marshall’s School of Modelling,” she says. The couple worked with renowned American fashion photographer and portraitist, Richard Avedon. Robin as the model and Jill assisting with the set-ups.

“I was too short for runway work, but I did quite a lot of commercial advertising for hair products like L’Oreal. They always did my hair for free.

“I loved the variety. Did one or two with Robin, like a cover of Good Housekeeping. Then with the children when they arrived; we were all in it.”


After writing her first book at the age of 7, Jill went on to have a very successful career in writing. Her writing was well supported by Robin who paid for her to take a writing course that was “quite helpful”. Jill sent out a number of her short stories to magazines, which were never accepted because the magazines always commissioned stories from well-known writers. Still determined to advance her career, Jill wrote a carefully researched period novel and submitted it to Collins.

“After a while, they asked me to come and see them at their very grand head office in St James St. I was shown into a room where a very elegant young man welcomed me with the amazing words, ‘Mrs Tattersall, I think I can say that we will publish anything you write!’ He went on to say they got 250 unsolicited manuscripts per week and mine was the first he had ever known to be accepted.”

That day, she went home and proceeded to write her second book and from there, as they say, the rest is history. Jill became an admired author of more than 14 successful historical mystery novels and was awarded a “Daughter of Mark Twain”, a prestigious award for story tellers worldwide.

One of her novels, Lyonesse Abbey, made it to the New York Times best seller list. “The books were serialised and came out in paperback editions in many languages and when I was accepted by Morrows of New York, things became even more exciting,” said Jill.

Her period novels sell throughout the world and have been translated into many languages. In addition to historical mysteries, Jill wrote several books on Caribbean history when she came to the Virgin Islands, including ones on Blackbeard, Black Sam Bellamy and Captain Kidd.

The Birds of the BVI Collection’ is the series of paintings that Jill focused on after the hurricanes of 2017. Many artists I know in the BVI found it incredibly difficult to pick up a paint brush in the months following the hurricanes that year. One artist, Garry Scales, was one of the first to start painting and he painted what he saw around him, the destruction, the broken trees, blown through buildings. Jill’s return to painting after Hurricane Irma was to initially document what she saw on her rare trips around the island directly after Irma, but she soon realized she was unable to complete those paintings. Soon after she found a healing way for her to escape the devastation of her beloved Islands and the result is this collection of 20 paintings documenting BVI birds, each painting accompanied with a detailed description and information about each breed.

Lisa Gray


In 1965, Jill and her [by now] surgeon husband Robin felt it was time for a change. They decided to take the huge leap of moving to the Caribbean. With them, they needed to bring a sloop they had built in Holland called, Summer’s Cloud, which was named after Jill’s first novel.

To cover provisioning and shipping costs of their sloop, Jill approached Women’s Own Magazine, one of the most prominent women’s magazines that published her books as serial stories. They were delighted to pay a fee in advance to Jill, in exchange for an article on the family’s adventure. With their three boys, James 10, Mark 8 and Simon 5 and their beloved cat, they left their home in Wimbledon and set sail for St Lucia in a banana boat with Summer’s Cloud also on board as they felt that was the fastest way to transport it across the Atlantic. From St Lucia, they boarded the 28-foot sloop and headed for Tortola where Robin would take a position as the island’s first surgeon.

During their time at sea, Jill wrote about their experience, which would go on become a story called “Storm Passage to Paradise”. Upon arrival to Tortola, Jill needed a photograph of the family for the article. As she looked around for someone to ask to take the picture at Wickhams Cay, she found a well-dressed young man who agreed to do it. He was the (then) 19-year-old Honourable Ralph T. O’Neal.

Shortly after, the family took residence at Fort Burt Hotel. Robin and Jill’s sons attended school on the second floor of what is now The Pub. Later on, they moved to Treasure Isle Hotel for some time, before eventually purchasing the Bougainvillea Clinic, which served as both their home and their surgery clinic.

In 1971, Robin and Jill welcomed their fourth son, Johnny. Though Jill was very busy with raising their four children, she was still able to find time for her passion.

“In between everything else, I painted,” Jill said. “Eventually, the years rolled by and I got divorced and I found I could not write another word of fiction. I was thinking, what am I going to do with myself? I had all this creative energy, but I just couldn’t write.”

It was through painting Jill found her voice. “I started to paint again” she said. This creative voice would be further shaped by her experiences in the Virgin Islands.

Martin’s Meat Market This painting is a memory of Mr. Martin and his well known meat market on the end of Fleming Street. Cows were slaughtered behind the building. Mrs. Martin can be seen here washing inside the shop.


While sailing, Jill was already inspired by the idyllic Caribbean Sea. “I looked at the islands as we sailed in our little 28-foot sloop and I thought, ‘these waters want to be painted in watercolor’,” Jill said. When the Tattersalls finally arrived at the Virgin Islands, it was unlike anything Jill had ever seen.

“When we came to Tortola, it was so exciting to see a completely different world. The first thing that struck me was that the houses had no chimneys. Why? Well, because they didn’t need fireplaces, but I hadn’t thought of that. I wanted to paint those houses without chimneys and I wanted to paint the people. Everyone was working so hard. People were cutting things for donkeys and gutting fish. Everywhere I looked was something that I hadn’t actually seen people doing before. But I just loved to see it.”

Greatly influenced by the Virgin Islands, Jill’s artwork reflects and documents its physical beauty and rich history. When experiencing creative drought, as all artists do from time-to-time, Jill looks out on these islands of inspiration to return to her creative flow. The pinks and oranges of the sunsets, the soft greens and blues of the sea and the yellows of the coral reefs that are found in these beautiful islands are the colours on Jill’s palette. Each stroke of her brush converts tells stories: of fungi bands on Main Street, the basket makers of Road Town and the Fish Market at the Old West End Dock. These scenes depicted on the canvas become a symbol of our strength and resilience of the spirit of the Virgin Islanders.

Jill often creates imaginative landscapes by adding things or making changes to memories of the past. Along with the visual narrative in her paintings, Jill also extends this in the form of a written story. Collectors of her artwork love that most of her paintings are combined with these stories.

With this unique perspective of the islands coupled with her mastery of watercolours, Jill brilliantly depicts life in the Virgin Islands from the 1960s onwards.


Jill Tattersall’s Solo Art Show will be held on

Thursday, 22 July 2021, From 5:30-7:30pm.

At Nutmeg & Co., 164 Waterfront Drive, Road Town

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