The Little Sparta Trust has been saddened by the news of the death of Ron Costley on 6 February 2015. As a noted typographer and book designer, he enjoyed an illustrious career at Faber and Faber. He was also the longest serving of all Ian Hamilton Finlay’s collaborators. It was during the 1960s that Ian began the process of seeking collaborators in the fields of design and craft in order to realise his poetry in the appropriate manner and with consummate quality. Ron was introduced to Ian by Stephen Bann in 1967 and their fruitful collaboration spanned four decades.
Ron took pleasure in Ian’s detailed letters explaining proposed artworks. He regarded them as design briefs and responded in the straightforward, intelligent and congenial manner that was characteristic of their longstanding relationship. Ian’s prolific output led to Ron amassing an impressive archive of drawings for lettering and designs for artworks. Some were realised for Little Sparta and others for certain of the landscape installations commissioned for sites elsewhere. Many became prints, cards and bookworks, even textiles. Over the years Ron’s eloquent yet 'invisible' design sensibility helped to define the visual style of the Finlay oeuvre.
Ian’s interplay between publication and garden is evident in four of Ron’s designs that can be seen at Little Sparta. These originated in his drawings for the suite of ‘Heroic Emblems’ published in 1977, with commentaries by Stephen Bann, to accompany Ian’s seminal exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London. The ‘Midway’ plaque is in the Temple Pool Garden (1977, carved by Michael Harvey); the ‘Emden’ memorial is in the Front Garden (1975, carved by John Andrew); and the two planters ‘Hasten Slowly’ and ‘Even Gods’ (1977, also carved by John Andrew) are in the Woodland Garden.
Ron also enjoyed Ian’s use of the garden as an experimental workshop. On visits during Ian’s ‘cast concrete’ phase, he would draw lettering directly into wet cement, as can still be seen in two paving slabs (c.1975): ‘NETC’ is outside the cottage; ‘Barque’, whose letters were drawn with a twig, is near the grotto. However the most dramatic application of Ron’s drawing can be seen in the pair of life-size cut-out figures (1985) in stainless steel of Apollo (in red) and Daphne (in green). Inspired by Bernini’s famous Baroque sculpture, the god’s pursuit of the transformative nymph within the leafy glade of the Wild Garden has become an iconic feature of Little Sparta.
Another one of Ron’s designs (c.1975) exemplifies Ian’s practice of using the garden as a nursery-of-ideas that were subsequently transplanted into the landscape installations elsewhere. The mosaic poem VNDA (Latin: wave) can be seen outside the entrance to the cottage. Ron designed the typography and the mosaic letters were set into wet concrete by Douglas Hogg. Shortly afterwards the wave poem became hugely enlarged into the ‘Wave Wall’ mural sculpture for Livingston New Town (1977), where it has weathered well. Unfortunately the ‘Wave Wall’ guidebook wasn’t published and in time the typescript was thought to have been lost. Fortunately Ron proved to have a photocopy and, thirty years later, the texts by Denis Barns and Stephen Bann were published alongside Ron’s original and exquisite calligraphic designs for the installation’s lettering.
Ron’s design work will be remembered in various spheres of endeavour. His engagement with Ian and Little Sparta not only generated drawings and designs that will be appreciated in perpetuity, but also stimulated the way that he created his own garden at home in Bishops Stortford. Ian was delighted with Ron’s garden, which must have brought to life his vision of Little Sparta as a revolutionary garden centre stocked with new ideas for contemporary gardening. In fact Ron’s garden is one of a significant pair of artists’ gardens inspired by Little Sparta. The other, of course, is Janet Boulton’s in Abingdon.
Once he had retired, Ron offered his services to the Little Sparta Trust – and thus designed in 2009 the Trust’s first publication: Little Sparta, an introduction to the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay. This handy pocketbook introduces the visitor to the garden’s poetry by focusing on forty of the 272 artworks. It includes all the works whose inscriptions are in Latin or another language, and provides English translations in order to clarify their meaning. The sketches and bird’s-eye view by Gary Hincks complement the text by Jessie Sheeler, while the garden itself continues to be ‘introduced’ by Ron’s cover photograph.