I recently had the opportunity to visit the studio and garden of Janet Boulton, an artist with strong connections to Wiltshire and Swindon.
Born in Swindon in 1936, Janet attended St Catherine’s School for Girls on Bath Road in Old Town from 1945 to 1953. She then studied for the Intermediate at Swindon School of Art from 1953 to 1955 before going to the painting School at Camberwell until 1958.
After studying at Camberwell, Janet returned to Swindon and, encouraged by the head of education, began to work part time as an art teacher in Commonweal and Hereod Burna Schools, and at Swindon College. This gave her time to develop her practice as an artist.
In 1977, Janet was invited to have a solo exhibition at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition, entitled ‘Windows and Reflections’, showcased her paintings of and through windows. It included paintings made during her time living and working in Swindon. Alongside this show, she selected works from Swindon’s own collection of modern British art. She still has some of her paintings from this time in her neatly stacked art store.
Janet moved to Abingdon in the same year, where she established a home, studio and garden. The garden at Janet’s home has got to be one of the most remarkable domestic gardens in Britain. Although small in scale, its imagination, sense of design and beauty are beyond measure. Inspired by Little Sparta, it uses plants, artworks, text, classical allusions and personal memories to create a unique landscape. It is a garden and an artwork in one.
In the top floor of her house, Janet has a papermaking studio. Previously, she and the lettering artist Pat Russell set up an experimental paper making studio in Abingdon. A number of Janet’s works involve reliefs made from handmade and dyed paper. Some are infused with watercolour pigments – experimental and innovative work in which Janet is never entirely sure of the outcome. Some of those I saw on display combined creamy textured white paper with vivid splashes of watercolour, and were inspired by time spent at Oxford’s Cow Mead Allotments, where she was a visiting artist.
Recently, Janet’s watercolours again address reflection and depict some of her large collection of glass jars and cosmetic containers. The artful arrangements allow her to explore colour, light and perspective. Her sunlit studios are filled with precise arrangements of bottles and mirrors and numerous works in progress.
It is always a privilege to meet an artist and my time spent with Janet was no exception. The imaginative, refined, focussed quality of her luminous watercolours is matched by the clarity and generosity of her ideas and conversation. She talked about her life as an artist and about her wonderful garden, which was an absolute pleasure to visit in the warm July sunshine.
Janet Boulton was a contributor to British Library Sound Archive’s ‘Artist’s Lives’ 2005-2009.
Curator at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery