Love it or loathe it: the provocative garden of Little Sparta inspires debate. By Tim Richardson
Several years after Hamilton Finlay’s death, Little Sparta continues to be a garden which divides people. Garden writers, historians and art critics tend to rate it highly, while designers, landscape architects and creative garden owners are often more circumspect. Why?
Those critical of the garden dislike what they feel to be the rather cramped feel of many of its spaces, and the way the sculptural elements crowd in on each other, leaving little room to breathe. For them, it can feel as if the garden (and by extension its maker) is hectoring the visitor, while the meanings of its many references, wordplays and classical allusions appear either wilfully opaque or intellectually superior in tone. Some are uncomfortable with militaristic imagery in a garden setting (hand-grenades for gateposts?), wishing that more had been made of the starkly beautiful natural surroundings, the Pentland hills.
Little Sparta’s defenders celebrate Finlay’s wit and the consistency with which he has pursued his own artistic agenda, decrying the secular nature of society and (literally) carving out for himself a role as the ‘official war artist’ of his own demesne. These supporters evoke the heroism of the artist’s stance against Strathclyde Regional Council, which in a fit of civic vandalism resorted to sending bailiffs to the garden to seize artworks in lieu of unpaid rates. (Finlay argued that his Temple of Apollo, a converted byre, was a religious building and therefore exempt from taxation.) His defenders refer to the delicacy of his sculptural vision compared with the heavy-handedness of so much public art, and applaud the stuttering, claustrophobic feel of the place, arguing that it adds to the intensity of the experience. They say that the sense of uneasiness created by the garden, crammed with difficult transitions, heightens sensitivity to its successive episodes. There’s no let-up. smoothness of transition, and this is a virtue.
I have to say that personally I fall into the defenders’ camp. The circular motions described by Finlay’s paths through glades and thickets seem reminiscent of French picturesque gardens of the late 18th century, such as Ermenonville. It is on a dinky scale which is unusual to see in Great Britain, and while it does not appear to sit well with Finlay’s interest in poetic English landscape gardens such as The Leasowes, it should be appreciated that like any designer he gleaned ideas from different spaces – some visual or spatial, some poetic or philosophical. I suspect that detractors of Little Sparta react negatively partly because this is a garden that’s not only unfamiliar but actively seems to militate against what we’ve been taught to think of as ‘good design’.
The fact that there is a live debate about the garden is symptomatic of its richness. By extension, the latest book about Finlay’s work, ‘Nature Over Again’ by John Dixon Hunt, is just as useful for its observations about gardens in general as it is for those about Finlay’s. One of the points Hunt makes is that what is usually endorsed as good garden design – that a space “will feel accomplished and solid, a good and tangible place” is turned on its head by Little Sparta, a place which “disconcerts, confronts you with reminders of hostile events”.
To this end we are reminded of Finlay’s dictum: “Embark on a garden with a vision but never with a plan.” That probably won’t be endorsed by any major design schools, where the graph paper will probably still be out with a vengeance. This approach has led and will continue to lead, to a garden design culture in which an identikit 1980s-inflected sub-John Brookes style will remain the mediocre baseline of the profession.
Tim Richardson – independent garden and landscape critic.
Tim Richardson’s has just published a new book, full of great essays, which will be reviewed on thinkingardens. Meanwhile, here it is on Amazon.
The above piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal May 2009 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor and Tim.