BackTo the reports

Ron Costley

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.

Ron Costley Apollo and Daphne


Cultural Landscapes

Following the creation of the student study resource partnerships detailed in the article below, Edinburgh University is now recruiting postgraduate students for its “Cultural Landscapes” MSc programme.

Further information about this course is available on the University's website here:


Study Centre

The Little Sparta Trust is delighted to announce the formation of a partnership with Edinburgh University and the Edinburgh College of Art which will allow post-graduate students to use the garden and its artworks as part of a range of courses, including art, literature and landscape architecture. Thanks to a grant from the university, half of Ian Hamilton Finlay's house has been converted into a study centre, where we hope that future generations of students and art-lovers can learn more about Finlay's ideas, and his enormous influence on modern art.

In August 2014, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Fiona Hyslop, visited the garden, to see it for the first time and to hear more about our plans. She professed herself delighted with the garden, which she toured in typical Little Sparta weather: bright sun interspersed with showers. Her speech paid tribute to Finlay's importance to Scottish art, and acknowledged the garden as one of Scotland's most cherished cultural treasures. She thanked the Trust for maintaining the garden to its current high standards.

The plans, announced to an audience including the Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir John Leighton, Janet Archer, head of Creative Scotland, and Professor Chris Breward, Principal of the Edinburgh College of Art, included a project to acquire the house at Little Sparta currently owned by Pia Simig, Ian Hamilton Finlay's assistant and executor. This includes the Temple of Apollo. We will embark on this ambitious plan in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland.

Ownership of this last property, not currently belonging to the Trust, would allow us to open a small gallery, as well as using the accommodation for an artist in residence.

Watch this space... .

Study Centre And Visit

Study Centre and Visit

Study Centre and Visit


Michael Harvey

The Little Sparta Trust is saddened by the news of the death of Michael Harvey.

Due to the longstanding relationship between Ian Hamilton Finlay and Michael Harvey there are many collaborative works at Little Sparta that  display Michael's fluency of design and elegant lettercarving.

His memoir 'Adventures with Letters' (47 Editions, 2012) contains a delightful evocation in text and image of his collaboration with Ian which lasted for over 30 years. A more detailed account, 'A Concrete Collaboration: Working with Ian Hamilton Finlay' can be found in the EJF Journal, no. 11, January 2007, and an edited version appeared in the Sculpture Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, 2009.

Achtung! Minen


New Gardener and his New Monthly Reports

We are delighted to announce the appointment of a new gardener at Little Sparta, George Gilliland, to work alongside Ralph Irving, helping him with the many tasks involved while learning about the garden at the same time. He and Ralph are helping to develop the Conservation and Management Plan, which is being drawn up by John Phibbs of Debois Landscape, and which will, when it is completed, not only map the garden, but incorporate a complete history of its creation, development and realisation by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

George is a landscape gardener and designer, who has worked in several major gardens in the Scottish Borders. Before that, he was Gallery and Exhibitions Manager at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, and at the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast.

Educated at the University of Ulster, Belfast, he did an advanced diploma in the history and theory of art and design, and his thesis was entitled Between Virtue and Revolution -- A Reading of the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay.
George began working at Little Sparta in February, and is writing up monthly reports on his experiences there.

Click here to read George's reports so far.




Golden Age Hut Renovated

The goose hut was repaired recently by Andrew Townsend, an architect based in the south of England . Andrew made the original designs, in collaboration with IHF, and built the goose hut in 1982. Following this he worked with IHF on a number of projects for the next twenty years or so, both at Little Sparta and elsewhere. This year he returned to the garden with two young assistants, Harry Wardill and Boris Bogdanovich (engineer and architect respectively on the Scholarship programme run by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), to carry our structural repairs and to renew the heather thatch roof on the goose hut.

Goose Hut - wooden columns with heather infilling - IHF with Andrew Townsend, 1982

There is a drawing by the 18th century French architectural theorist and cleric Laugier showing his idea of the first building ever constructed. He held that such a building was governed by virtuous principles of simplicity and rationality. This hut, formerly housing the geese of Lochan Eck, exemplifies the drawing.


Boreas fells our Ash Tree

The Ash tree in the Front Garden, with its plaque ‘Mare Nostrum’ fell in the autumn of 2010. Fortunately the tree’s sudden falling did not damage severely any of the works, but it did topple some of the trees of ‘Bring Back the Birch’ and damage the boundary wall and part of the bench with its inscription –

‘The Seas Waves The Waves Sheaves The Seas Naves’

The Ash, with its sound of the sea in its leaves was the foundation tree of the garden: an original source of the garden’s lyricism, and part of its metaphoric association with the sea. As tallest and oldest tree it had a venerable presence being the first sign of the garden, folded into the moorland, as the visitor climbs the stony path to the house.

We were initially going to remove the tree stump but decided against it as the Ash was regenerating from within the cambium layer, A new Ash sapling will be placed in the shelter within the shards of the trunk, protected from the strong winds that can sweep up the moorland. So the old tree will nurse and nourish the new as is fitting and as Ian perhaps would have wished, making for a gentle regeneration.

Gratitude to arborists Robin Craig, Donald Roger and to our gardener, Ralph Irving for their work with the Ash.

| Home | | Works | | Visits | | IHF | | Contact | | Explore | | News | | Donations|