Art and nature: The fragile world of Little Sparta

The death of artist Ian Hamilton Finlay has left his extraordinary garden - a fusion of poetry, sculpture and plants - facing yet another challenge. Jonathan Brown reports
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The Independent Online

Survival amid the raw, windswept beauty of the Pentland Hills has challenged generations of shepherds and farmers. Forty years ago, something altogether more fragile - a poetry garden - took its place in this unforgiving landscape. Dug out of an old potato field by the poet-artist Ian Hamilton Finlay and his wife, Sue, the garden, despite the elements, flourished into a work of genius.

What they created was as much a challenge to the intellect as an aesthetic treat. Little Sparta, named in an ironic riposte to nearby Edinburgh - which boasts the nickname Athens of the North - blends heavyweight ideas and historical themes from European civilisation with the upland grandeur surrounding it.

Alongside the planting and landscaping, Hamilton Finlay used his terse poetry and sculpture to explore notions ranging from pre-Socratic philosophy to the idealistic failures of the French Revolution. So successful was he, that art historian Sir Roy Strong declared Little Sparta to be the "only original garden" to be created in Britain since 1945. In 2004, 50 leading Scottish artists voted it "the nation's greatest work of art".

But the death of Hamilton Finlay on Monday at the age of 80 has focused renewed attention on the vulnerability of his astonishing creation. A trust set up 11 years ago to secure Little Sparta for future generations, faces a constant financial struggle to maintain the artist's vision and preserve the integrity of his work. According to its treasurer, Jessie Sheeler, more than £50,000 is needed each year to preserve the seven acres of grounds. New projects, such as the creation of a hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, out of a semi-ruined barn, and the preservation of the artist's home, where he lived and worked right up until his death, only add to the task.

"Our hope is to be able to raise enough money to guarantee that the garden will be kept as Ian wanted it and keep it up to the standard he did," she said. One of the big dangers, however, is the threat of being overrun by visitors. There are few paths and the grasslands can quickly be churned into mud by the trample of feet. Last year the number of visitors was limited to 5,000. Despite Little Sparta being virtually inaccessible by public transport, applications to visit were hopelessly oversubscribed.

The garden is divided into nine discrete areas. These range from a well-tended allotment to wild gardens of heather and grass, an area of clipped English parkland and a neo-classical temple pool. "Planting is used as part of the composition of the landscapes. There are trees, wild ferns, grasses, much of it indigenous. Ian tried to garden with a very light hand - he didn't want to distort nature," explained Ms Sheeler.

But explaining Little Sparta can be difficult, comments Paul Nesbitt, director of exhibitions at Inverleith House in Edinburgh, who has organised summer coach parties to the gardens and has been an enthusiastic champion of Hamilton Finlay.

"You approach it through a landscape of bleak terrain. When you enter, you go into a world where you lose all sense of where you are but become acutely aware of yourself as a human being. Ian was so aware of the human condition. His moral philosophy and view of the world underpinned everything he did. He was an artist, poet, moralist and a fantastic gardener - he was good at all of them."

Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, said Little Sparta was a "unique contribution" to contemporary art. "In his work as a philosopher, poet and sculptor, [Hamilton Finlay] reinvigorated the classical tradition in art. His works combine beauty and precision in a celebration of the relationship between man and nature," he said.

Hamilton Finlay's relationship with the art establishment has not always been so benevolent. In 1978 he fell out in spectacular fashion with the Scottish Arts Council after his work was withdrawn from an exhibition at an Edinburgh gallery. In 1983 his feud with Strathclyde regional authority erupted into full-blown conflict - the so-called War of Little Sparta - when officials tried to seize artworks in lieu of unpaid business rates they claimed he owed.

The artist and his supporters prepared to repel the bailiffs and after a tense stand-off and some dramatic, staged explosions, the authority withdrew. The money was never collected and Strathclyde Region was later abolished.

Hamilton Finlay perhaps failed to achieve the financial rewards enjoyed by other contemporary artists, even though his reputation has continued to grow. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1985 and staged major exhibitions at the Serpentine and the National Museum of Scotland in recent years.

But according to Ms Sheeler, his greatest achievement - Little Sparta - was earned through the "sweat of his brow". Maintaining it for posterity will require the exertion of others.