‘There is a place for jokes, and a place for not-jokes’ – Ambra Edwards meets Ian Hamilton Finlay

December 1, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

This is the first of a series of repeated and rejuvenated early articles from thinkingardens. I’ve been aware for some time that there are excellent pieces on here which many people don’t find. (though there is an index on site)

And that if they did, they’d find some of them rather less presentable than I’d like, as they were done in a different time and need refreshing. So I will periodically republish them, refreshed. (Apologies to current contributors who may have to wait longer for their pieces to see the light of the web).

And early on, I didn’t have a commenting facility. But we do now, so here’s your chance if you have waiting for ten years to have your say.

One of the very first pieces I was offered, in 2005, came from Ambra Edwards on Ian Hamilton Finlay. Thank you for your faith in thinkingardens, Ambra. The photographs are all, of course, courtesy of Charles Hawes, who doesn’t actually have one of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who only peeked round the door at us when we visited.

It is interesting to me that Little Sparta is one of several gardens, all made by people successful in other disciplines, which does ordinarily get acknowledged as art.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon


Little Sparta7 © Charles Hawes

Ambra Edwards:

Ambra Edwards recalls her first meeting with Ian Hamilton Finlay at his garden near Dunsyre in Scotland.

The Pentland Hills are only an hour from Edinburgh. Yet perched on a windy hilltop, under a glowering sky, Little Sparta feels as remote as Patagonia.  I turn off the road, and my little car bumps perilously up the long, stony track.  Every hundred yards or so, I have to stop, push open a heavy metal gate, drive through, and close it again behind me.  These actions take on a ritual quality, as if I were walking the Stations of the Cross.

I abandon my car by a pile of rocks which may or may not be artwork in the making, and reverently open the garden gate.  It is inscribed: ‘A COTTAGE – A FIELD – A PLOUGH.’ On the reverse it reads ‘THERE IS HAPPINESS’.

Is Ian Hamilton Finlay, I wonder, a happy man? All I have read about him has prepared me for a Jeremiah – a seer, a visionary, a man of uncompromising intellectual ferocity who delights in combat.  Yet his garden suggests a Roman contentment.  Will he prove to be more Pliny than Robespierre?

Little Sparta, Copyright Charles Hawes

The house is low and modest.  Along the front runs a glassed sun-room, with a reassuringly scruffy muddle of battered cane chairs, fishing floats and half-dead geraniums.  Outside, artworks are crammed on to the tiny patio – one of his characteristic ‘wave’ mosaics, playing games with the Latin word UNDA; a large pink fibreglass cube, bitten away on one side, a pair of watering cans, enigmatically inscribed, all jostling for space among sweet peas and strawberry troughs.

But it is raining stair-rods, so I knock energetically.

Little Sparta 4 © Charles Hawes

The door is answered by a Valkyrie – tall and magnificent.  She scowls at me suspiciously from under a mane of tawny hair. “Yes?” she demands.

“I’ve come to see Dr Finlay.” (Mr Finlay? Dr Hamilton Finlay? Doctor Finlay’s casebook?)

“He is not seeing visitors,” she barks.  Her  accent is as Teutonic as her demeanour.

“But I have an appointment.”

“You did not make any appointment with me,” she snaps, and goes to shut the door.

“I didn’t speak to you, I spoke to him.”

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

“Do you know anything about this?” she demands, over her shoulder.  Another beautiful young woman emerges from the shadows, who will later be introduced as Ann, tamer of wild horses.

“No,” says Ann, and disappears.

The rain has long since gone through my coat, and is running down my neck.  “Why don’t you go and ask him?” I suggest.  “Can I wait inside while you do?”

The Valkyrie scowls again, and shuts the door in my face.

‘Unda’ is a good word to contemplate in the rain. The word is repeated four times on adjacent paving stones, and each time a wave-shaped printer’s mark rearranges the letters.  The very word has the rise and fall of the sea in the sound it makes…

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

“Hello,” says a quiet voice behind me.  It is Finlay.  He is tiny and soft-spoken and fragile-looking, like a small bird.  But his handshake is firm, and his eyes bright as knives.  He ushers me into his study.  Wobbly towers of books and CDs cover the walls, the floor, and every available flat surface. There is a narrow tousled bed, and a tangle of pyjamas, an ancient typewriter and wellingtons on the floor.  A single log burns in the fireplace.  A length of fishing net and a fleet of model boats in the window blocks out all views of his garden.  He points me to a high, stiff chair by the fire, perches on the bed, and we begin to talk of gardens.

Little Sparta, Copyright Charles Hawes

He has recently been to to Peto’s Buscot Park, and relishes its formality, its austere magnificence. A visit to Stourhead has been less successful.  His arrival coincided with preparations for the annual Fete Champetre: instead of a perfect Gaspard he has been greeted with chemical toilets and fat men in shorts.  The smile freezes on his face as he speaks of it: the loss of dignity offends him to the point of physical pain. Is it not odd, when his own garden is so full of humour, that he should feel such need of gravitas?

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

“There is a place for jokes, and a place for not-jokes,” he says firmly. It is as if one of his heroes, a Saint Just or a Robespierre, has revealed himself to be humanly weak and venal.

There are jokes aplenty however at Little Sparta – the raspberry canes painted in pink and green camouflage; a pair of Nazi tortoises with ‘Panzer Leader’ inscribed on their shells; pineapple finials on a gateway transmuted into hand grenades; a fingerpost marked ‘Zur Siegfried Linie’: of course – the washing line.

And between the jokes, there are poems.  ‘The wind is teaching the rowan to write.’   ‘Dividing the light, I disclose the hour’ (a sundial).  A bench round the base of a tree reads:




So many images in so few words: the rippling of the wind through sea and corn and the surrounding grassland …the awesome architecture of the barrel of the wave… the wordplay of nave with the latin navis, a ship… the sussurating lilt of the lines, like the rise and fall of the sea…  Finlay drops his poems into the garden like stones into a pool:  ripples spread slowly out from them – of emotion, intuition, understanding – establishing a dialogue between the object and its setting.

Context is all: often he creates the setting around an inscription after he has placed it – stage-managing the effect and manipulating a response as meticulously as any Kent or Shenstone.

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

The garden, he complains, is always discussed in art terms – rarely in garden terms.  Which is a pity, for this is cracking good gardening – not a rich man’s garden, but one that has grown piecemeal over decades of physical and intellectual labour.  When Finlay brought his family here in 1966, there was nothing – just sheep grazing on the wild moorland and a single storm-blasted ash.  Bit by bit, he dug and planted. (Hardy native trees like birch and wild cherry; swathes of durable ground-cover: hardy geraniums, dicentras and ferns, great clouds of astrantias.)  He diverted streams into pools and a little loch.

(I had my first proper fan mail – a letter in the post – for The Bad Tempered Gardener from Sue Swan, Ian’s wife, and from that I came to know her and have long discussions about Little Sparta and gardens.  I am disconcerted to find that her huge contribution to Little Sparta is not referred to here. So – my apologies to her – Editor.)

Gradually he extended the garden out into the moorland, so that the garden offers a stirring contrast between the tight, intense, enclosed spaces surrounding the house, closely packed with sculpture and inscriptions; and wide, sweeping views over loch and hill.

Bordering the pool is a tiny patch of forest, deep, dark and deliciously gloomy, criss-crossed by a maze of tiny paths that double back and forth across a stream.   Beyond lies a wood of a quite different character: all sunny pools and shady groves – like a scene from Ovid, trembling with magic possibility, where anything might turn into anything else at a moment’s notice. (The scene is set by cut-out figures of Apollo in pursuit of Daphne.)

Little Sparta 2 © Charles Hawes

The latest addition is a piece of open land smoothed into a miniature eighteenth century parkland, a gracious landscape that leads abruptly to a dinky fenced vegetable plot.   Such trenchant juxtapositions make a relatively modest plot – just four acres – endlessly interesting and varied.

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

I step from the pillars and porticoes of the Temple Pool Garden into a patch of dripping pines.  It is the embodiment of one of the poet’s most resonant ‘sentences’: Superior gardens are composed of Glooms and Solitudes and not of plants and trees.’

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

Skipping about in the wood there appears to be some sort of fairy – a small, wet, red-haired sprite of about ten years old.

“Hello,” she says.  “Have you come to look at the garden?”

“I have.”

“It’s a funny garden, she says. “It’s full of secrets.  Shall I show you?”  And she points out panpipes and pyramids, and a marble bird’s nest hidden in a tree, and child’s paper boat on the Temple Pool, magically turned to stone.

Her name is Rainee; she is the housekeeper’s daughter.  In the holidays, she comes with her mother and the garden is her playground.  “I’ll show you the swans,” she says, and leads me suddenly into the outer garden, where three black swans sail portentously over the loch. A sombre stone column (‘Nuclear Sail’) looms on the bank, and a small boat lies half submerged on the shore.  “Can you keep a secret?” she whispers. “In the summer, when it was hot, we went for a row on the loch, my mam and me. The swans all followed us.”

Little Sparta 1 Copyright Charles Hawes Epson 48700656


Rainee disappears in search of bread for the swans, and returns with an invitation to lunch.  The Valkyrie does not reappear.  Instead, there is a Celtic beauty with dark Rapunzel hair.  This turns out to be Rainee’s mother – who serves up a wonderful soup at the scrubbed kitchen table and fusses very gently till the poet has eaten it all up.  Rainee chatters between mouthfuls.  “You do talk a lot,” says Finlay, coldly. (Currently on display at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh is another of his sentences: Chatter sprains the soul.)  His own speech is soft and slow, costing him some effort since a stroke last winter.

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

It has changed him, he thinks. “Pia complains that as I have grown older I have become very peaceable. (Pia Maria Simig is his companion and collaborator.)  “She complains I no longer like a good fight.” We talk of the glory days of the Battle of Little Sparta, his long struggle to have his garden temple accepted by the local rating authority, Strathclyde, as a religious building, and therefore rate-exempt.  “It took a lot of time and energy, but I got a lot of works out of it, so it was a good battle.”

But he has not become so dove-like, I suggest, that he would wish to temper the martial imagery that abounds in the garden – machine guns, grenades, tanks, torpedoes and especially battleships?

Little Sparta 3 © Charles Hawes

“Lots of visitors object to the battleships,” he observes, “but for me they are objects of great affection.”

“But as you change, and your preoccupations change, does the garden record that, becoming a kind of album of your intellectual life over the years?”

“Not really,” he says, “my preoccupations haven’t really changed at all.  I certainly haven’t transcended my interest in battleships.”

We go out together in the pale afternoon into the Wild Garden, where he laughs at my schoolgirl Latin, before confessing cheerily that he never learned any himself.  “I have a girl who puts things into Latin for me.”  (Another girl – surprise, surprise.  But his charm is immense: it is easy enough to understand why he is surrounded by adoring hand-maidens.)

Little Sparta 4 © Charles Hawes Epson 48700677

I am at once elated by the sheer emotional power of the garden and humiliated by my own lack of learning. The range of his allusions is so vast, from classical mythology to the Revolutionary Calendar, from German Romantic poetry to provisions for camouflaging tanks.  He must yearn to walk round with cultured folk like Sir Roy Strong, who will pick up all his quotations.

“Not at all,” he says gallantly. “Strong knows nothing about battleships.”

We come at length to a bench by the Loch, and sit looking through the skeletons of meadowsweet and iris across the water to the distant hills. The wind sends little wavelets skittering towards us. A blade of sunlight catches the hills, turning them gold between dark stains of heather and pine.

How does he want people to respond? I wonder.  Does he want us to come in a spirit of humility to be taught by the garden?

“That’s a leading question,” he laughs.  “I left school at fourteen, so I reckon if I know something, other people ought to know it too.”

But not everyone, surely, will understand the identification of the revolutionary Saint Just with Apollo. Not everyone will have read the speeches of Robespierre.  Why has he chosen such stern and forbidding figures for his pantheon?

Little Sparta, copyright Charles Hawes

“They are not stern – they are serious.  It is a pity that our age lacks their seriousness, their idealism.  Robespierre I really admire – he is fine.”  And it becomes clear to me that for him, the French Revolution is as immediate as if it were yesterday.  “What’s important about them is that they meant what they said.  You can’t say that about Blair now, can you?”

“But what about the Terror?”

“That didn’t make what they said less true.”

The very things I find appalling in them – their fanaticism, their ruthlessness – is what commends them to Finlay.  It is that selfsame uncompromising single-mindedness that might lead a man to battle bureaucracy over decades or to value his art above the needs of his family.  What I call cruelty, he would call clarity.

“You’re a very modern person,” he remarks.  It is not a compliment.  “Who then would you choose for your garden god?”

Orlando Bloom?

It is not a question I have previously considered.

Little Sparta copyright Charles Hawes Epson

And therein lies the glory of this garden and its gently spoken, courteous, terrifying maker.

What does a garden mean in our time?  For some of us, a plant museum.  For others, a place to laze about in.  But why should we laze – physically, intellectually or morally? Why shouldn’t we be poked into greater perceptiveness, greater effort?

“I am very happy to be chastened by your garden, “ I say.

“But I’m unhappy that you should feel chastened.”  He is all embarrassment and solicitude – as if I had found a fly in my soup.

What more should we want from a new experience than that it be enlarging?

“I’m not used to being enlarging,” he declares, a naughty grin spreading over his face. “I’m used to being just wee me…”

Ambra Edwards – garden writer

The poet died in March 2006.  The garden is now in the care of The Little Sparta Trust, which seeks to safeguard its long term future.

You may also be interested in Tim Richardson’s piece about Little Sparta  and a review of a book about Ian Hamilton-Finlay

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Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com December 5, 2016 at 2:43 pm

How fortunate Ambra Edwards was, to visit Little Sparta with Ian Hamilton Finlay. And with Rainee — a child’s eye looks at things in a special way.

I’ve visited Little Sparta three times and have read almost everything that’s been written about it. I still can’t bring myself to write about it, though. In part this is because I can’t decide what I think. It is such a complex garden, with so many layers. It is so stuffed — overstuffed? — with objects, plants and ideas that, like Ambra, I feel both elated and humiliated.

But would I choose to return, again and again? No doubt about it. This is a garden that repays multiple visits. Each time I would see more, understand more, enjoy more. And surely that is what defines a great garden.

Anne, do keep the re-runs coming. If they are anything like as good as this piece, they deserve a second appearance. And some years from now, maybe even a third.

annewareham December 5, 2016 at 3:20 pm

Thanks, Pat, I will. Though I think you’ll find that Ambra is a very special writer… Xxx

Paul Steer December 2, 2016 at 1:25 pm

Mmm lack of seriousness ….. I recently heard an elderly portrait painter complain of this in the art world “everyone is an artist now” .

Katherine Crouch December 1, 2016 at 3:57 pm

yes please to more articles refurbished

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