Mildred Holland’s Seven-year Task

IMG_3824Mildred Holland was an unusual and determined woman. Not content with  being merely the new rector’s wife at St Mary’s, the parish church at Huntingfield in northeast Suffolk, Mildred took it on herself to singlehandedly repaint the ceiling of the church’s hammerbeam roof. This enormous labour took seven whole years between 1859 and 1866, a period in which spent she much of her time on her back atop scaffolding wielding a paint brush. First she painted the chancel, then the nave. A novice to church painting, Mildred was given some advice by E L Blackburne FSA, an expert on medieval decoration, but other than this and the help she received from workmen erecting the scaffolding she had no assistance whatsoever. Naturally, such arduous toil took its toll and Mildred died in 1878, a relatively young woman, not so many years after completing her task.

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There may be those who will find the roof decoration here far too bright for their taste –  the colours are brilliant and vibrant, the overall affect almost psychedelic. But if you have  a plentiful supply of pound coins  – there is a cash-hungry slot for inserting coins to supply short-lived electrical illumination – you can see for yourself the sort of church decoration that might have held illiterate medieval peasants in awe. True, Mildred’s work was a Victorian makeover but it was probably quite faithful to the original paint job – the bling of medieval church decoration was often far more garish than many of us imagine it to be.

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To find the church you must first venture down winding narrow lanes southeast of Halesworth in Suffolk, a modest adventure in its own right. There is a monument to Mildred and her husband in the churchyard close to the gate. The dedicated font cover, a sort of internal church steeple, is rather impressive too.

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St Mary’s, Huntingfield and the story of Mildred Holland makes an appearance in my new book Slow Travel Suffolk, a companion volume to the recently published Slow Travel Norfolk, although the book is by no means solely about churches, medieval decoration or single-minded determined women.

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About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
This entry was posted in History, Suffolk, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Mildred Holland’s Seven-year Task

  1. Fascinating post and the idea of such a treasure half-lost down winding Suffolk lanes is very evocative. I love this combination of medieval/Victorian bling and one English woman’s determination.

  2. dianajhale says:

    I’ve seen some of the other Suffolk church roofs but didn’t know about this one. Amazing Victoriana.

  3. Fascinating and well done Mildred!

  4. Klausbernd says:

    Dear Laurence,
    thank you to tell the story of Mildred. Besides the Victorian zeitgeist of her age I think she got it quite right. Most of those midieval painting were quite naiv and the colour was quite bright because colour was symbolic communication and at least as important as the figures. And one can see on your fine photographs that medieval was serial. I think Mildred got all this quite right, although the decorations are more Victorian. Now you made me curious to visit this church.
    Have a happy week.
    All the best
    Klausbernd and the happy Bookfayries Siri and Selma
    By the way your book is really helpful. I already did some of the walks and enjoyed them very much 🙂

  5. Thank you all for your comments. It’s a very interesting point that you make Klausbernd that the colours were symbolically significant and probably as important as the figures themselves.

  6. dobraszczyk says:

    Fabulous! Reminds me a little of the Watt’s Chapel near Godalming. Important to remember just how garish medieval church walls would have looked.

  7. Psychedelic from the 1850’tes, that would be great to see. As far as I know the old church artists used a lot of colour, not the least in the Middle Ages.

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