Appreciation of Janet Boulton

Janet Boulton, 1936-2024

Janet Boulton, the painter, gardener and friend of Ian Hamilton Finlay, died peacefully in hospital on 24th January 2024 at the age of eighty-seven. In the early 1990s, she began to visit Little Sparta and became the informal artist-in-residence. During the following years, she produced a handsome body of paintings that encompassed the garden and surrounding landscape, interiors and the model sailing boats. The scale and variety of this achievement was evident in her exhibition, Remembering Little Sparta, at Edinburgh School of Art (2009) and recorded in her publication of the same title.

Janet was born in Blunsdon, Wiltshire, into a farming family and enjoyed a rural childhood. She studied at Swindon School of Arts and Crafts (1953-55) and Camberwell School of Art (1955-58). Her career was dedicated to art, both as an educator and painter. She spent forty fulfilling years as a part-time and somewhat unorthodox art teacher (1959-99), while simultaneously developing her practice as an artist. Janet’s personality suited her vocation. She was confident and determined, robust and authoritative, as well as generous and sensitive. Janet’s momentum never faltered, and her artistic life was marked by numerous solo exhibitions at galleries across the country, including the Mercury and Redfern in London, and, more recently, at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery (2018), Magdalene College, Oxford (2019) and STEAM, Swindon (2021).

Her decision to paint in watercolour, rather than oil and acrylic, proved to be the turning point in her career, and it coincided with settling in Abingdon during 1979. Shortly after, she became interested in gardening, botanical studies, and garden history, and she embarked on a succession of detailed, long-term explorations of selected places in the UK and Italy. These included the Boboli Gardens and Villa La Pietra in Florence, as well as Little Sparta. Each garden she painted influenced the development of her own garden at 64 Spring Road, Abingdon. In the mid-1990s, her interest in the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay inspired her to install inscriptions and artworks, which prompted applause for her unique contribution to small garden design.

When I was invited to the opening of the Serpentine Gallery garden in London during 1998, Ian encouraged me to seek out Janet among the guests. He similarly urged Janet to look out for me. We met and struck up a conversation that continued for twenty-five years. She was tickled when I signed off an email or phone call with the phrase ‘Carry On Carrying On’, and later adapted it for her final Christmas greeting: ‘I Carry On Carrying On’. We are fortunate that Janet continues to ‘Carry On’ through the diligence with which she documented her work. An online search will find umpteen websites. Of these, three can be especially recommended. Her own website is a consummate encapsulation of her oeuvre, including her publications and films of her garden. Through the website of the Garden Museum we can enjoy her talk The Artist and Gardener. Her e-book, ML11 8NG, was created for the website of the Little Sparta Trust The title aptly invokes the place through its postcode, whose sculpted version is embowered in her own garden. Turn the pages to relish the selection of her watercolours, paper-pulp reliefs and garden artworks that articulate her love of Little Sparta. 

Her first visit was in 1993. Ian had agreed not only that she could stay, but also that she could paint during her preferred season of winter. This was a unique privilege, considering that he was adamant that the garden only existed between May and September. In return, Janet cooked, and Ian tucked into the steaks she brought with her. On one of my visits, I also enjoyed her cuisine and the kitchen table chit chat. During each sojourn, she would sit outside wrapped in warm layers and paint her atmospheric watercolours of the garden.

Janet is not readily thought of as one of Ian’s collaborators. Nonetheless, he so enjoyed her still lives of his model sailing boats that he asked her to produce watercolours for poem-cards, such as: Sparrow (1996), A Seychelles Stradivarius (1996) and Lemons with Oranges (1998). A bramble stem became the print Thonier (1999). However, their most extraordinary collaboration arose when one of their conversations at the kitchen table raised the mutually fascinating prospect of the garden providing the surfaces for paintings. They shared an appreciation of Cubism and also of paintings by André Derain. Janet later observed that Derain’s Bacchante (1945) is set in a glade beside a stream “where the entire composition of cavorting figures is delineated in highlights”. The collaboration would be an homage to Derain, and the subject was suggested by Ian’s poem, which used his familiar form of the dictionary definition:

HIGHLIGHT, n. a mark, sign, or medal, awarded by the light.

and the subject was illuminated by Janet’s paintings. Little Sparta trustee, Ann Uppington, wrote about the project in the newsletter during 2016:

“A visitor in the summer of 1997 passing a rowan tree near the old allotment might have noticed some subtle markings on the rowan’s sinewy trunk that seemed oddly real – as if the tree was in a glade and patches of light had penetrated through the uniform shade of the Woodland Garden. Was the staining a new form of lichen? Had we been tricked by the illusion of light? The markings however turned out to be painted at Ian Hamilton Finlay’s request by his friend Janet.”

The painter’s surface was the bark of each tree, which demanded a return to acrylic and, characteristically, Janet approached these highlights with professional seriousness, telling Ann that:

“Mixing the colours was surprisingly tricky – each tree had its own tone and the colours of the bark ranged from the soft, smooth green greys of the rowans through to the rough surfaces of black on the fir trees. Finding the right pitch – so that the highlight belonged to each tree, was not imposed in an arbitrary way, and yet, at the same time, was clearly visible – was another challenge”

Knowing that the passage of time and weather would erode her paintings, Ian conceived the book, Highlights (1997), in which Janet’s subtle illusions of light are beautifully captured in the photographs taken by Robin Gillanders.

Janet’s own garden is among a number of places, which were individually inspired by Little Sparta. One was created by the art collector, Ronnie Duncan, in Wharfedale and another by Ian’s longstanding collaborator, Ron Costley, in Bishops Stortford. Ian was delighted with each one. They must have brought to life his vision of Little Sparta as a revolutionary garden centre stocked with new ideas for contemporary gardening. Ronnie first visited Little Sparta in 1975 and his garden is best recorded by the current guide, The Stone Garden at Weston (2023). However, there is an extensive bibliography that includes the Finlay memorial edition of the New Arcadian Journal (61/62, 2007). Ian’s death prompted Ron to invoke his garden as an homage through the exquisite little book and accompanying booklet (2007) that share the same title, In Horto: CMXX 111SJ, which translates as ‘In The Garden’, accompanied by the Latinised postcode, ‘CM20 3SJ’. It is so easy to revisit Janet’s garden in Abingdon. Go to her website, where you will also be reminded of her evocative watercolours of gardens and especially of Little Sparta.

Dr Patrick Eyres

1. The watercolour was created for the poem-card Sparrow (1996) and is reproduced with the permission of the Ian Hamilton Finlay Estate.