Obituary: Janet Stone

Hugh Cecil
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:28

Janet Clemence Woods, photographer: born Cromer, Norfolk 1 December 1912; married 1938 Reynolds Stone (died 1979; two sons, two daughters); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 30 January 1998.

Overlooked by ancient downland, the village of Litton Cheney in the far west of Dorset lies in one of the most magical parts of England. There, for 26 years, Janet Stone lived at the Old Rectory, with her husband Reynolds Stone, the distinguished engraver and typographer.

A descendant of Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, Janet Stone came of an ecclesiastical family (her father, Edward Woods, was Bishop of Croydon and then of Lichfield; one of her brothers, Frank, was Archbishop of Melbourne, another, Robin, Bishop of Worcester). She shared the qualities which singled her father out for church leadership - a good- tempered, gregarious nature, personal magnetism, organising powers and a strong, melodious voice.

So fine a soprano was she indeed that for three months, early in her marriage, she trained as an opera singer under the famous Italian teacher Miele, who gave her free lessons because he believed her to be better equipped to sing Verdi than anyone he had ever met. But the training separated her too much from her husband and her household, which had become the centre of her life. Her decision to give up her musical career was a loss to opera but not to British cultural life, for her creative energies went into making a perfect environment where some of the best British artists and writers came to work and to relax.

With her social curiosity and zest for life she had immediately increased their circle after they married, drawing in the many clever and talented people with whom her husband came in contact, but was too shy to entertain. This led to some notable collaborations - such as his illustrations to a selection of Benjamin Britten's songs, his dust-jackets for the books of Iris Murdoch and Cecil Day Lewis and his watercolours and engravings for Another Self and Ancestral Voices by James Lees-Milne. The stream of guests in summer brought Reynolds a large number of close friendships, such as he had never enjoyed before.

Janet Stone was in a long line (now extinct) of Victorian and Edwardian hostesses that included Julia Margaret Cameron, Blanche Warre-Cornish and Mrs Leslie Stephen, whose cultured gatherings represented a higher peak of English civilisation, despite their modesty, than did most of the grand aristocratic establishments of the period. At Litton Cheney with the Stones, it was easy to believe oneself a hundred years back in time: there were fires in every bedroom, readings aloud round the drawing-room hearth in the evenings, lunch in a little arbour of Janet's design, picnics in high summer on the deserted Chesil beach, winding walks through a woodland garden full of rivulets and small bridges, and, amazingly, butter from their cow (and churn).

The company, whether it were Sidney Nolan, L.P. Hartley, Henry Moore or Frances Partridge, was always entertaining. One might say that Janet's motto was, "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing by hand"; and such perfectionism was pursued on a very modest income and with the assistance of only one devoted helper in the kitchen.

Janet Stone was a romantic with a strong element of fantasy in her make- up, which did not clash with her practical abilities. Her handsome and stylish appearance recalled the Edwardian age. With her wide-brimmed hats and veils to protect her delicate skin, her corn-coloured hair and upright carriage, she made a memorable impression. Her conversation was ardent, emphatic and humorous. For all her enthusiasm for making new and illustrious acquaintances, she was unexclusive and was devoted to the many young people who came to stay and were bewitched by the demi-paradise that she had created.

Surprisingly, despite her galvanising presence, she was not self-confident. She depended absolutely on her husband and after his death, in 1979, she gave up the house and entertaining on the same scale. Without Reynolds, the life in Litton Cheney was unbearably lonely.

Her life and home with him are commemorated in her photographs, some of which have been published in her own work, Thinking Faces (1988), others of which were commissioned for books and magazines; she took the author portrait for Kenneth Clark's 1969 book-of-the-television-series Civilisation. A collection of her prints is now in the National Portrait Gallery archive.

She worked almost entirely in black-and-white. Most of her best portraits were done at Litton Cheney, with one of her three cameras, a Canon, a Yashica and an old Rolleiflex, the product of hours of patient observation. Some have an extraordinary spiritual depth - such as those of Iris Murdoch, David Jones and John Piper - as beautiful in their way as those of the four Stone children taken in childhood and youth; and humour runs through many of her images - of John Bayley, Professor of English Literature, lying happily asleep on a railway line; and of John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls, reading absorbedly, with a teacosy on his head.

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