Little Sparta

If you are in Europe in July, you should find your way to Pentland Hills near Edinburgh and the garden of visual poetry known as Little Sparta created by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006). On July 13 and 14, 2017, there will be a symposium entitled “Ian Hamilton Finlay: Little Fields, Long Horizons,” exploring new critical and interdisciplinary perspectives on the Scottish poet, artist and avant-gardener.

The keynote address, “Between Spoils and Gifts,” will be delivered by Susan Stewart, Avalon Foundation University Professor of the Humanities, Princeton University.

Stewart writes, “This talk looks closely at Ian Hamilton Finlay’s place in the art history of his time by considering his most fundamental departure from prevailing avant-garde practice: that is, his immersion in history. Focusing upon his ‘Roman’ practices of epigraphy and spoliation and his larger transformation of the bounds of the gesamtkunstwerk, we can glimpse the many ways he pursued an art that could evade the novelty of the present. Hamilton Finlay took a long, difficult, and revisionary journey through the past in an effort to reach into the future.”

Born in Bermuda, Finlay and his wife Sue purchased the five-acre plot in 1966—originally named Stonypath—and immediately began redeveloping the physical space. They constructed ponds, rivers, paths, and unexpected visual moments, eventually renaming the area Little Sparta in the 1980s, in part “a reference to its relationship with Edinburgh, known as the Athens of the North.” Today, the land is part of a national trust:

“Little Sparta is not just a garden but an entire art work,” says Derek Brown, a production designer and Gardenista reader, and our guide on this visit. Brown’s connection to Little Sparta began when he was a boy, living nearby as the creation of the garden got underway. Recently Brown returned for a visit and found Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden to be “deeply personal and engaging, a total immersion into his world.”


See also:
John Dixon Hunt, Nature over again: the garden art of Ian Hamilton Finlay (London: Reaktion, 2008). Marquand Library (SA) SB457.6 .H866 2008

Ian Hamilton Finlay archive: parts 1-7 (printed items), 1960-2015. Rare Books (Ex) oversize Item 7308232q

Susan Stewart, “Garden Agon,” Representations No. 62 (Spring, 1998), pp. 111-143. Stable URL: