Walking with Carl Lavery on 27 July 2011

Little Sparta

I am walking with my friend Carl Lavery. Carl has travelled all the way up from Aberystwyth, in West Wales, so that we can walk together around Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta. Though Little Sparta is located in the Pentland Hills, it’s as new to me as it is to Carl. The sign to Little Sparta is nearly missed – an unpresuming painted piece of wood, faded, peeling and tattered.

The dirt road to Little Sparta suits the earlier name of the Finlay family home, Stonypath. Looking behind us, the view to the Pentland Hills is one to breathe in. The grass is lush green – testimony to the fact that today’s sun is not to be taken for granted.

The first work we see, on the wall outside the garden, signals the complex contradictions that await within; as well as the education I will require to engage its many references, allusions and analogies. These stretch from the classics – Homer and Virgil – to German philosophy, to the French Revolution, all enmeshed with each other, the references cutting back and forward across the times and spaces – physical and imagined – of the garden. Virgil’s words, from the Eclogues VIII, greet us: ‘FLUTE, BEGIN WITH ME ARCADIAN NOTES’. This text is embossed onto metal, in turn encased in a work-a-day red brick wall. The image beneath the text, though, is of a rifle. Beneath this, a smaller sign states ‘February 1983’, presumably the year that the creation of Little Sparta, as a site of/for art, commenced. Our minds at the outset are prompted to engage with the seeming enigma: Within the idyll, darker political forces? Within the idyll, the threat of the outside? The threat of the outside necessary to the idyll inside? The creation of the Republic is bloody? (The creation of Little Sparta, its maintenance, makes its own demands and has innumerable costs?) The preservation of the idyll requires less than idyllic forces? After the revolution, what?

Next to this metalwork, a wooden gate, the top bar etched with the words: ‘das gepflugte Land the fluted land’. Looking over to the Pentland Hills, fluted seems the right word to bring them into view.

The site of Little Sparta is composed of eleven different sections. When we set off into the first garden, ‘The Front Garden’, we have no idea how large this garden will turn out to be. The front garden is domestic in scale, packed with flowers still in vibrant summer bloom, and fruit bushes bedecked and dripping with plump, ruby-red redcurrants; a waterfall of jewels ripe for the plucking. The berries are fittingly sweet and tart. This domestic garden is interrupted – punctuated – unsettled – doubled – overwritten – with repeated iterations of water, sea, ships: ‘WAVE SHEAF’, ‘SEA PINK’, ‘SCHOONER’, ‘CLIPPER’, mosaics or words etched into concrete slabs that guide our feet towards a patch of small ships atop plinths. These are not the romantic ships abreast romantic seas; they are all war ships bearing inscriptions of seeming torpedoed dates. And yet, they are small scale ships, aestheticised, domesticated, asking us to kneel down, to take a closer look. In contrast, above a gate, a plinth of huge letters that rub alongside and against the prophecies to or memories of armed destruction: THERE IS HAPPINESS.

Concrete poetry is literally housed in concrete:



ritten upon the



And stone speaks to or for wood, a memorial demanding that we ‘BRING BACK THE BIRCH’. One memorial stone simply, profoundly reads ‘Fragile’, its fragility performed by its visible aging.

Standing in one corner of the garden, a corner made tangible by the fence, I am struck by how fenced in Little Sparta is. Beyond: the field, scrubland, the beginning of a moor, the Pentland Hills. At points it feels like the garden is almost ‘pulled back’, like a curtain, to reveal the view on the oter side. Look! There it is! (At one moment, much to my amusement, Carl stands stock still, struck by his vision of a particular cloud – as if seen for the first time. ‘The cloudness of the cloud?’, I suggest, gently mocking but at the same time enjoying his deeply endearing and contagious Romantic perspective.

Over three hours we eagerly explore the many crafted and textured landscapes: The English Parkland (almost a parody – in miniature – of a manicured estate); Lochan Eck Garden (surely created for Finlay’s son, Alec?) which is visited by darting, metallic-blue dragonflies. Everywhere text-sculptures prompt our recognition, or a new cognition, of where we stand and out beyond here: the triplet – a series – of whitewashed beehives pronounce ‘BOUNTIFUL’, ‘SWEET PROMISE’ and ‘GOLDEN GAIN’. The word ‘WAVE’, etched in four different languages into rough hewn stone slabs, set within gently undulating hillocks. Other sculptures speak more from their singular physical presence. ‘Nuclear Sail’, a great slab of grey stone, waves on the shore of Lochan Eck, like a deadly nuclear submarine. The seemingly grand pillars of a gateway reveal themselves to be crowned with hand grenades. The incongruously huge and golden head of the handsome but ruthless Saint Just peers through the shadows of the arcadian glade – the words of Saint Just earlier encountered in the huge, fragmented concrete blocks resembling a violently shattered earth: ‘The present order is the disorder of the future’.

Paths through grasses, trees, shrubs and scrub pull us along, then teasingly demand we make choices, to detour or not into the undergrowth, across the stepping stones, taking time to read and ponder and discuss the words etched on sculpted memorial after memorial. Little Sparta is a poetic garden, a philosopical garden, a literary garden, an intellectual garden, a provocative garden, a challenging garden; rich and dense and surprising, revealing and hiding. Carl, with his expert knowledge of the French Revolution and his deep interest in European philosophers, is just the right person to be walking its many paths with, offering ways we might navigate them – tending and cultivating but not wholly harvesting. There is room here for our imaginations. We wonder. We marvel.

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