Obituary: Janet Tanner

Janet was appointed to teach Spanish at Marlborough College in 1968, at the same time as the first intake of Sixth form girls. From the outset two of Janet’s finest qualities were evident. It required courage to join what had hitherto been an all-male, and predominantly bachelor, collegiate community of teachers. Janet had courage in abundance and she also showed great dignity; never allowing any problems of acceptance to impinge on her public life.

She settled at once into doing what she did best – pursuing excellence. Simon Barefoot writes of her teaching “If ever there was an advertisement for a rigorous approach, supported by a sturdy learning structure, this was it. The pupils felt secure in their learning and were always encouraged to demand the highest standards of themselves.” Andrew Brown writes: “Janet effectively was Spanish for so many years. Her meticulous and sensitive teaching ensured a thriving language, and its steady growth is due to the firm foundations which she laid.” Her former Head of Department writes of her reliability, clear headed and perceptive approach, always ready to see the best, even in the least deserving of pupils.

In 1980 Janet was appointed Director of Studies, a very senior post, which meant responsibility for writing the timetable, allocations of teaching staff and advising on curriculum change. Her predecessor said: “During the six months before she took up the position she spent many hours studying the challenges and demands with academic precision. She proved well able to plan the solutions with the eye of a chess Grand Master. Her approach was one of the attentive listener, and precise interpreter. Behind the easy laugh and twinkle of an eye was a steely personality and a person determined to do what was necessary for the best.” Janet had to deal with a multiplicity of demands, mostly from the Heads of Departments. Janet continued in this post until 1991 and her successor writes of her sharpness of intellect and admirable administrative skills. “Her grasp of all issues to do with the timetable was immense and really peerless – these were the pre computer days when sheer brain power and lots of sharp pencils were key. Janet was kind, thoughtful and, when you got to know her, great fun” Another colleague writes: “As the College considered full co-education Janet contributed to the working party that visited several prominent co-educational schools and her comments and questions helped us men to feel that we knew what we were talking about”.

The post required close liaison with the Head of the College, then as now, The Master, and successive Masters write of her good sense and efficiency: “My abiding memory of Janet is of her unfailingly proactive kindness as a colleague. I couldn’t count the number of occasions on which Janet would wisely anticipate a knotty administrative problem ahead and, at the same time, present me with a lucid analysis of all the best options for its solution”.

In 1991 Janet relinquished the post of Director of Studies and became the first Senior Mistress. In this last role she was tasked with producing an Appraisal system. That carries with it connotations of judgment that are always likely to cause alarm amongst colleagues. It is tribute to Janet that such a system was successfully introduced and later used by Eton College as a model. Looking back on her career here a colleague wrote “When you consider how difficult things must have been for Janet in her early days one should recognise the immensity of her contribution”

Janet’s musical life did intersect with the College. Almost throughout her time she played in the College orchestra and was an indomitable member of the Choral Society. But she very much preferred to keep her orchestral life separate. Janet joined the North Wiltshire Orchestra in 1968 and was still playing with us until the summer of 2015. I think it typical of her self-effacing manner that she insisted on playing in the Second violins, although technically well able to join the Firsts. To the outsider the term “Second” might carry implications of lesser importance or easier requirements. For the strings this is quite untrue. The Firsts may have the glamour of all the melodies and the top lines. But the Seconds have a demanding role. There is the physical demand, with the bowing arm high to facilitate much playing on the lower strings. There is a mental demand of constant sensitivity to the needs of accompaniment and the reading of unfamiliar rhythmic patterns. For very many years Janet led the section, which means direction and ensuring both uniformity in playing and integrating new players. Later she moved back, but was always ever helpful. One of the current section writes of how Janet would tactfully correct the bowing and “If I was ever lost then I could count on Janet to know when to come in and she was always right. She kept going right until the end and was an inspiration to us all.”

Janet also played with the Swindon Symphony Orchestra after her retirement from College until she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Although she never had such a prominent role as she did with North Wilts she was again a highly valued member of the Second violins. Retiring from Swindon might have been an opportunity to cut back. However when the Marlborough Concert Orchestra was founded in 2006 Janet joined soon after its foundation. She was always a supporter of the local community and realised that a new orchestra might find it hard to attract players, when there are established orchestras all around. Here too she took on the role of Section Leader, maintaining it until 2013 and writing scholarly programme notes. To the end she refused almost all assistance; a friend recalls that: “At her very last concert in 2015 she let me carry her violin, but that was the only help that she ever accepted,” another example of the courage and determination, which were such hall marks of her life. The local musical community has lost a treasured friend and supporter, whose contribution over forty-eight years has been inestimable and her passing leaves gaps in the orchestras that we shall not readily fill.

To start with Janet lived in College accommodation, but she moved as soon as possible into Innerleith on the edge of town. Here she could make the private life that she so much preferred. Her longest friendship was with the late Beverley Heath, mathematics master at the College. They loved the Marlborough countryside and enjoyed long walks, during which Janet came to share Beverley’s expert knowledge of the birds and flowers of the area and they spent much time at Jones’ Mill nature reserve at Pewsey. Together they bought a cottage in Brittany, near Dinan, and spent much time exploring that coastline. They ventured much further afield. The image of Janet and Beverley rafting on an Amazonian tributary or sailing in the Galapagos is far from what we might expect, but I am assured that it happened. Sadly Beverley’s untimely early death robbed Janet of his companionship in her final years. However she had strong friendships with her neighbours. They write of her kindness and consideration, bringing meals to those who were ill, and sharing a love of gardens. Janet enjoyed the company of their children and one spoke of Janet donning a witches’ costume and joining in the fun of a Halloween “Trick or treat” party. It is appropriate to pay tribute here to all that Janet’s neighbours did for her as she became less able to manage her home and the tireless work that they did to enable her to enjoy house and garden for years longer than might otherwise have been possible. In 2013 Janet moved down to Town Mill and there received much help from the management and again from neighbours, who enabled her to retain her independence to the end. Janet dreaded having to move into permanent care and spoke with deep gratitude of all that Brian and Dotty Williams did for her.

The most private part of Janet’s life was her devotion to chamber music. The string player has the immense riches of a repertoire that includes some of the most sublime music ever written. But playing this music demands levels of virtuosity far beyond the average orchestral score. Janet however relished these challenges. The friendships that she formed lasted for decades and grew out of attendance at music courses, where she met people who were not part of local orchestras. One friend writes: “We met first at Madingley, a course run by the Alberni quartet and, although we lived far apart, kept playing together, and going on courses, until last year. Janet’s sensitive playing, humour, quick wit and demon crossword and Sudoku solving were an essential part of the group.” Bear in mind that these courses were ones where the group had to study pieces in advance and then be tutored by world famous ensembles. Janet though loved this work and a colleague writes: “Janet was marvellous at doing research at what we played and had an amazing memory. She was always the one who made copious notes after courses with all the bon mots such as no negative vibes.” Betsy Zander writes “We were members of a quartet, which was originally formed on the Grittleton course in 1986, which has played together for a week every summer from then until 2014. Janet led the quartet for most of that time, until after she became ill, when she swapped parts and played 2nd violin. Ours was a very happy and warm relationship. Our last meeting was in May last year, when we gathered at Janet’s house.” Twenty-eight years of friendship is a wonderful bond and all these players have suffered a grievous loss.

After this it is fitting that you will hear Purcell’s Fantasia number 8 which was one of Janet’s favourite pieces. As this happens let us hold in our memories all Janet’s qualities of intellect, musicality, humour and friendship and let us remember her as she was in the lovely photograph that graces the cover of the Order of Service. Although we mourn her passing and extend deepest condolences to her family let us rejoice that her struggles now are over.
Janet Rest In Peace.

Christopher Joseph