In this post, Alexia Holt focuses upon early works by Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta and on new work developed through the Little Sparta Residency Programme.
Little Sparta evolved gradually from 1966 when Ian Hamilton Finlay and his wife Sue moved to Stonypath, a small hill farm with just a modest cottage garden. This cottage garden and the land immediately behind the house were amongst the first sections to be transformed by Ian and Sue, becoming the Front Garden and the Temple Pool Garden respectively. Today, these areas are often the first to be explored by the significant number of visitors that travel to see one of Scotland’s most important public artworks.
Both areas include many notable early works by Finlay, such as Wave-ave, an inscribed stone tablet (1968), and aitherOR, a ‘wild stone’ with carved inscription (1973). Works such as these relate directly to Finlay’s involvement in the international concrete poetry movement. By the 1970s his interest for some time had been in taking poetry off the page and onto three-dimensional objects, inscribing text into sundials, stone plaques or benches situated in landscape.
However, not all of the early works in the Front Garden or the Temple Pool Garden are inscribed. Many of the individual artworks convey their meaning without text, expressing Finlay’s ability to play with language and subvert our preconceptions of familiar or everyday objects in a variety of ways. A favorite example of this is Marble Paper Boat, a work created by Finlay with sculptor Christopher Hall in 1975. The familiar form of a child’s paper boat, made here in marble, is placed on top of a stone column, sited so that its form is reflected in the water of the Temple Pool Garden pond. In this way, the ephemeral plaything, crafted typically by a child and parent, is transformed into a permanent work made collaboratively by a poet and sculptor.
Discussing the development of the garden with Head Gardener George Gilliland, I was interested to learn that the ponds at Little Sparta were created as places for recreation and play as much as for their effect within the landscape as a whole. Marble Paper Boat reminds us of Finlay’s interest not only in boats but also in toys, in childhood and in the importance of playfulness itself within his practice. This is a recurrent theme in Finlay’s work and the National Galleries of Scotland’s own collection also includes a wonderful version of Marble Paper Boat made in 1975-6.
In 2016 the poet Thomas A. Clark returned to Stonypath for the first time in over 10 years to take part in the first Little Sparta Residency Programme. Clark had visited the garden many times prior to Finlay’s death in 2006. Corresponding with him frequently, Tom and Laurie Clark also published Finlay’s work through Moschatel Press. As collaboration was very much a part of Clark’s own experience of Little Sparta, he invited other artists to visit the garden with him. This approach led to a new work made with artist John Shankie: Longing is a short film of a simple white paper boat - its name, Longing, printed on the boat - captured as it drifts with the currents across the Temple Pool Garden pond. Perhaps suggesting a longing for a past childhood, this work eloquently reflects some of the themes that were central to Finlay’s own work and reverberate throughout Little Sparta.