Janet Boulton: Remembering Little Sparta

August 2009

Publication: The Times

Since 1993, Janet Boulton has made regular visits to Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s poetic sculpture garden in the Pentland Hills near Dunsyre. Indeed, given the frequency and duration of Boulton’s sojourns and the reverence in which she holds Finlay (who died in 2007), these trips may be termed quasi-pilgrimages. Some of the works here were made during Boulton’s period as artist-in-residence at Edinburgh College of Art in 2006.


Her purpose has been straightforward: to record Finlay’s remarkable garden, and in a number of instances, the interior of his cottage. That she should have been granted access to both his garden, out of season, and to his home, to which he rarely opened his door to visitors, demonstrates the trust in which she was held by Finlay and justifies his description of her as ‘sometime resident artist’.


Using various media, including papier-mâché relief panels, photography, watercolour and what she terms ‘garden works’ Boulton has constructed a record of her time at Little Sparta and paid homage to her mentor. Many of her paintings convey Finlay’s love of boats (which he saw as a form of elegiac pastoral) and record his extensive collection of models of these vessels. Stylistically, Boulton’s images are as soft as the medium of watercolour itself: hazy and almost dreamlike. Avoiding mimesis, they convey something of Finlay’s own boy-like nostalgia and wonder.


Using the same medium, Boulton has painted two elongated panoramas (measuring only 6.5cm in height but roughly two metres long). They are titled, respectively, ‘The English Parkland’ and ‘The World Has Been Empty Since The Romans’. Their juxtaposition is an interesting conceit with a palette which reflects, appropriately, the strongly contrasting moods – as well as the vistas – of Little Sparta. As such, they are the strongest works here.


By contrast, Boulton’s photographic record of her own Finlay-esque, horticulturally-based art conveys an impression of derivation rather than innovation. This observation can also be applied to many of the paper reliefs which merely restate Finlay’s original premise, lending little in the way of fresh comment.




Milestone, an ambitious international research project by Jake Harvey, Professor of Sculpture at the college, investigates stone: how it is quarried and the diverse ways this versatile and varied material is used as a sculptural medium.  An accompanying exhibition shows some of the results of this research and showcases the work of ten contemporary artists – including Joel Fisher, Daniel Silver, Gerard Mas, Sibylle Pasche and Susanne Specht - in the process of sculpting in situ.


The results are an involving and absorbing show where, for example, the respective technologies of East and West are juxtaposed, showing highly differing sensibilities. In India, for example, certain types of chisel and drill can be used only for a few minutes before requiring resharpening. Indeed, many of these more ‘primitive’ tools may be seen as beautiful art objects in their own right. By contrast, tungsten carbide steel – now used almost ubiquitously in the West – has an almost indefinite lifespan but seems dull and purely functional by comparison.


As the stone-cutting disks, pneumatic chisels and sand-blasting equipment whirr and grind in the college’s external courtyard, visitors inside can witness a moving and poignant film of a sole woman labourer in a vast Indian granite quarry. The delicate figure repeatedly lifts an oversized sledgehammer as she painstaking pulverises the brittle stone. Atsuo Okamoto has cut his head-sized sculpture ‘Volume of Lives (UK)’ into thirty-four numbered sections. Each of these he intends to distribute to different individuals who will retain them for five years before the work is reassembled. Thus, each piece will bear the record of its ‘journey,’ resulting in an artwork with nuanced but differing detail.


Taken together these two shows make for a highly contrasting but rewarding experience.