(Blogpost) Artist in Focus: A Conversation with Janet Boulton

Janet Boulton is a Wiltshire-born artist, whose work is driven by an interest in relationships between the man-made and the natural, windows and reflections, the language of symbols and garden design. Janet has exhibited widely, including two solo exhibitions at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, which were followed by the acquisition of paintings for the Swindon Collection. Janet was kind enough to tell us more about her life, career and paintings in our most recent ‘Artist in Focus’ Q&A.

Janet Boulton, ‘End of Term, Commonweal’, 1962, Oil on board, 163 x 163cm, ©Janet Boulton

Art on Tour: Hi Janet. Perhaps you can set the scene by telling us about your roots in Swindon?

Janet Boulton: I was born in Swindon on September 14th 1936. My parents were farmers and at Home Farm in Blunsdon. In 1940 they moved to Oxleaze Farm in Hannington. From 1940-1945 I attended St Andrews Church School in Blunsdon, and at the end of the war became a weekly boarder at St Catherine’s School for Girls on Bath Road, Swindon. It was during this period I made my first visits to the Museum, long before the Art Gallery was built.

I have quite clear memories of this time – wartime childhood, village life, train from Stanton Fitzwarren to Swindon, walks in the Town Gardens, ‘Trip Week’, etc. My Father was a keen gardener and was it during this period that I saw a wide variety of gardens, the influence of which subsequently emerged when I made a garden here in Abingdon.

Then, from September 1953 to December 1955, I was a student at the Swindon School of Arts & Crafts where I studied for the Intermediate Examination. Although I began the course for the National Diploma at Swindon in January 1956, I moved to London and completed the course in the Painting School at Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts.

I was then awarded a David Murray Landscape Painting Scholarship, which allowed me to spend the Autumn of 1958 in Avebury. The drawings I made there are now in the archive at the Swindon Wiltshire History Centre.

AoT: What prompted your return to Swindon after your studies at Camberwell?

JB: In September 1958 until September 1959, I lived in Corsham, and worked for six months at Westinghouse, Chippenham. My involvement with Swindon resumed when I was appointed as a part time art teacher at Commonweal Grammar School in November 1959. I also did a small amount of evening class work at the Art School.

From 1962- 1969 I lived in London with my husband the poet and translator Keith Baines, and during this period I continued as a part-time teacher in various adult institutes and held a number of exhibitions. After this I returned to Swindon, with my daughter Jessica to live at Ridgeway Farm in Wanborough. For three years I taught at Hreod Burna Senior High School and subsequently at the School of Art until July 1977. 

AoT: It was in 1977 that you had your first solo exhibition at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. Can you tell us about that experience?

JB: It was the late Denys Hodson (then Head of Arts & Recreation at Swindon Borough Council), who was most involved with this exhibition. The content of the exhibition was mainly focused on the pictures of windows I had made from 1970 -77  from the interiors of the Cottage at Ridgeway Farm overlooking the fields towards Liddington Hill, and the art room windows at Hreod Burna School overlooking the playing fields at North Star Avenue (an annex of the art school).

It was arranged that I should give a number of talks too, so at the end of the gallery I showed a selection of works from the Swindon Collection including a Gwen John watercolour and the Wadsworth. I also showed two large works I had made of figures in a classroom during my time at Commonweal. One of these is now in the Swindon Collection, and the other is in the Headmaster’s office at Commonweal.

Janet Boulton, ‘Summer Window, Ridgeway Farm Cottage’, 1975, Oil on board, 152 x 152cm, ©Janet Boulton

AoT: Swindon Museum and Art Gallery has recently acquired three artworks that were shown in ‘Windows and Reflections’. What was the inspiration behind these paintings?

JB: End of Term: Figures in a Classroom was made at Commonweal School in 1961-2. I have always been interested in various aspects of the relationship between the man-made and the natural. Whilst invigilating exams I was able to make small studies of the rows of pupils sitting at desks. The variations in their movements, the curves and angles of the figures contrasting with the regimented horizontals and verticals of the desks made an ideal subject.

The two window paintings show a view from the science room window in Hreod Burna School, and a window of Ridgeway Farm Cottage in the summer of 1975. These two paintings (made roughly a decade after the Commonweal pictures), also subscribe to my interest in the relation between the man-made and natural.  The structural picture-framing characteristic of the window and the view through to open spacious fields, scudding clouds, trees all with their movement and individual characteristics. The reflective quality of glass also lent itself being able to incorporate interior images in the picture.

I tend to paint subjects that are part of my life at the moment, both at home and work. When I painted these, I didn’t have the freedom to travel (which I subsequently did to paint gardens), but I found a subject so rich and varied that it became my main preoccupation for seven years.

Janet Boulton, ‘Science Room Window, Hreod Burna School’, 1974, Oil on board, 152 x 152cm , ©Janet Boulton

AoT: You returned to Swindon Museum and Art Gallery for another exhibition ‘Janet Boulton: Watercolours’ in 2017. Why did you chose to focus on watercolours for that show?

JB: In 1977, after my first one-person show at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, I moved to Oxfordshire and eventually settled in Abingdon in 1979. Starting a new life, coupled with less family restraints, coincided with returning to still life subjects and making a garden. My interest in glass (already expressed in some early post-Camberwell paintings of reflections in a triple mirror) developed into setting up still lives of tabletops covered in jam jars and rows of empty cosmetic containers, set before and reflected in mirrors.

When I was teaching at the Swindon School of Art, a student asked me to instruct her in the use of watercolour. Realising how little I knew, set about trying to use them, painting small works of windows, some of which are now in the Swindon Collection. Glass & Check: Crossed Pencils, 1991, was purchased for the collection by the Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery in 2019.

To paint these pictures I felt that pure watercolour (ie: no added body colour, as distinct from gouache) was the best medium in which to express the fluidity and luminosity of glass and reflections. Since then watercolour has become my main medium.

A film made by Distant Object Productions was aimed at showing the different ways I use watercolour, and attempted to demystify some of the out-of-date misconceptions about watercolour prevalent in the world of art.

Janet Boulton, ‘Glass and Check, Crossed Pencils’, 1991, Watercolour on paper, 86 x 94cm, ©Janet Boulton

AoT: Can you tell us more about how your practice has evolved since the 1977 show?

JB: Changes in my work and life as an artist from 1979 were further marked by being free to take up on a Southern Art’s sponsored residency in a local school. I became a resident artist at Pangbourne College in Berkshire, and had another sponsored residency at the Radcliffe Infirmary Oxford 1986-1988.

My interest garden history and design was sustained by travelling to make long-term studies at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire. I then spent a few weeks of every year from 1983 -2002 in Italy, finally settling to make studies of Villa La Pietra and Boboli Gardens in Florence. This was followed by 16 years study 1993 -2006 of the domain of Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta in Scotland. More recently, in 2010-12, I was a visiting artist at the Cowmead Allotments in Oxford.

In 2006 I was resident artist at the Edinburgh College of Art. The College gave me a huge, spacious studio in which to develop my ideas and make new works based on the work I had made at Little Sparta. Eventually it all came together in the 2009 in the Edinburgh show accompanied by a catalogue Janet Boulton: Remembering Little Sparta, which includes essays by Dr Patrick Eyres, Harry Gilonis and Jessie Sheeler.

This opening up of my practice as an artist was further enriched by setting up a papermaking studio with the lettering artist Pat Russell in Abingdon in 1986 -2006.

AoT: Your garden at Spring Road has become integral to your life and work. Can you tell us more about the ways in which your art practice and the space of the garden bleed into one another?

JB: I started making a garden here in Adingdon in 1980, and it was influenced by a number of existing gardens, most especially Anne Dexter’s in Oxford and Rosemary Verey’s Barnsley House. I painted these two gardens over a long period as a means to best understand what it was that went into the making of a beautiful garden.

I was, if anything, aspiring to make a plantspersons garden but contained within a discretely structured design. With hindsight I now understand that when in 1994 I began to place inscriptions into the garden – inspired by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s mode of expression – I was extending my already well established interest in Cubistic treatment of space (a shared interest with Ian Hamilton Finlay) and the inclusion of the occasional word, symbol or graphic device into my pictures.

Also, the ever-present preoccupation with the interaction between the man-made and the natural was taking yet another form of expression. Through the influence of Little Sparta, and already having established a garden, I have been able to make a garden that is a reflection of my own interests – gardens and art history, nostalgia, the human spirit and memorials.

The publication Foreground/Background: Making a Garden is an illustrated account of how the garden developed. A film of the same title was made by Distant Object Productions in September 2014.

AoT: The past year has been tough for all of us. Have you been able to continue working through the pandemic?

JB: Before the pandemic and lockdown restrictions came into place I had already started on two main projects so have been able to continue as planned. I am at present making what may be the last works in the Eye Music Series. The development of these pictures is complex, but these current paintings are inspired by the 12th Century ‘Tree of Life’ mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome and a 12th Century musical manuscripts of Hildegard of Bingen. At the same time, I am compiling a further publication, Eye Music II 2014-2021, which gives an illustrated account of how this work has developed with essays by the people who were involved.

In between-times I am always working on still life pictures some of which take a number of years to resolve. I have a smaller studio room in the house, where the objects and arrangements can remain undisturbed, gathering a patina of dust over long periods.

I am enjoying keeping the garden going at my age with the help of the gardener Peter Finnegan, and making new inscriptions with Colin Chung at Scorpion Signs. I’m thinking of doing another publication giving an account of keeping a garden at this late stage of my life.

As we all know, painting pictures does require long solitary hours. Being involved with making publications, collaborating with writers, musicians, working with a gardener and sign writer all goes a long way to compensating for greatly missing the stimulation of seeing friends and family.

AoT: Thank you Janet!

For more information about Janet Boulton’s fascinating work, visit janetboulton.co.uk.

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