Ancestral Woods

Researching my family history and a trip to a remote church in Norfolk inspired a whole exhibition of work.

Have a read below to find out the story behind it.


I had an idea for a series of paintings three years ago and I’ve finally started working on it!

I got thinking about how inspiration works and why this particular idea had stayed with me for so long. Three years is a long time for an idea to hang around. Some ideas are fleeting and never really establish themselves whilst others will persist for a while. It is particularly rare though for the excitement and enthusiasm of an idea to stay with me for such a long period of time. So why did it stay for so long?

When inspiration struck I was standing in the graveyard of a tiny church in West Harling. It was in the middle of the Norfolk countryside, and apart from a field on one side, all you could see were trees. The church stood alone on the edge of a forest. To get to it we’d had to drive down winding country lanes, a long dirt track and walk across a large empty field. The silence was interrupted only by birds or the hushed whisper of the wind through the leaves. It was one of those times where the quietness had an energy within it.

My ancestors had worked in these woods during the early 1800’s.

They were christened, married and buried in this church. I touched the gravestone of my 3x Great Grandparents Charlotte and William Wilson as I stood, looking at this ancient land, listening to the wind. Some of my ancestors were woodsman, others shepherds and farmers. I started thinking about their lives and about the woodlands and forests and the idea came to me for a series of paintings.

Instantly I felt that nervous feeling in my stomach and my mind started to race. Inspiration had struck! Images flooded my brain full of colours and textures and I had visions of myself adding paint to canvas and paper. I saw thick strokes of oil paint and the texture of rough watercolour paper shining through a transparent wash. It is always like this in the beginning, that first rush of ideas. I dream about painting, sometimes I cannot sleep for thinking about it. Standing there, on the land of my ancestors, with the wind on my face, I felt connected with this place and I wanted to create something from that connection. I was bursting with ideas and the need to paint them.

Upon my return from holiday, I couldn’t wait to get started.

I always paint my best work when I have an emotional connection to the subject. Aside from my own excitement, I also wanted to paint this for my Dad. He hadn’t been able to make the trip to his ancestors church so I knew it would be deeply meaningful to him. I drew a couple of sketches in my sketchbook and made a start on two larger canvases. I completed a smaller piece on board and called it Hush. For a tiny painting (just 7×5 inches) it had such depth and really conveyed the peace of that place. I had high hopes for the bigger canvases I was working on. 

Then my Dad died and it knocked me sideways.

I was in a complete state of shock. Doing any kind of art was the last thing on my mind. For a while I wanted to give up altogether. I had no motivation to do anything.  But I had committed to some work on the greetings card side of my business and so forced myself to sit down and create new designs, but my heart was very much broken and my desire to paint was gone.

I took the time I needed emotionally and did the bare minimum practically to keep things going. But time stretched on and I could no longer connect with the thing inside me that helped me to paint. I did try. I would sit down with all of my stuff and a tiny flicker of an idea, but it never went well and it just made me feel more miserable. I doubted I would get back to a place where I could create freely and with joy.

I didn’t give up though. Each weekend I would sit down and try to paint. I don’t know why. I think it was partly out of habit and partly because I was so desperate to regain this piece of me that I had lost. Slowly, things started to change. That magical side of creativity started to creep back and when I sat down to paint, there were glimmers of hope. Then my idea for the woodland series showed up again.

In the months that followed my Dad’s death, I found walking in the woods very comforting.

It eased my thoughts and nourished my mind. Little shoots of inspiration started to grow. I started to see things about trees in everything I did. I heard about ‘Forest Bathing’ from an artist friend, I read books about their secret life.  I sold Hush, that powerfully peaceful little painting. I saw photographs that fired up that tingley, can’t sleep stage of creativity and there it was, my inspiration was back.

So now I am busy painting Ancestral Woods. I’m so happy (and relieved) to be painting again.  And I can feel my Dad smiling at me, happy that I kept trying. There are definitely seasons, or cycles of creativity and this whole experience made me think deeply about creativity and how it works. More specifically about inspiration and where ideas come from? What happens in our brain to create a brand new idea? Why would an idea excite me yet bore somebody else?

And so I come back to the question I asked at the beginning.

Why did this idea for a series of paintings stay with me for so long? The honest answer is I don’t know. It’s never happened to me before. But I believe it is because I was meant to paint it. I won’t be the only one to paint the trees around West Harling Church, I’m sure. Or carry on to paint other woodland and forest scenes. But I am the only one who can paint it the way I will paint it. I am the only one who feels the inspiration for the place in this way because anyone who stands there will bring with them their own thoughts and connections and inspirations. That is why art is so exciting because you can ask any artist to paint the same subject and each will produce something unique. 


I hope you enjoyed reading this post and if it made you think more, or differently about anything I’d love you to comment below.

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