The Little Sparta Trustees are sad to note the death in late 2022 of Jessie Sheeler, whose contribution to the garden and its artworks was of inestimable value down the years. Not only was she a very early supporter of Ian Hamilton Finlay, offering advice on the creation of some of his seminal works, she documented the development of the garden with her own photographs and went on to compile the first illustrated guide to Little Sparta. The present guide is based on her work, and she generously handed over rights in it to the Trust.
Here Professor Stephen Bann offers a tribute to her life and work.
Jessie Sheeler (née McGuffie) came from the Edinburgh family who ran the well-known Doric Tavern (formerly McGuffies Tavern). She read Classics at Edinburgh University and was for a time Head of Classics at Bedales School in Hampshire. But most of her life was spent in Scotland, while her close relationship with Ian Hamilton Finlay over many years established her as his most long-standing and faithful collaborator.
Finlay’s first published book of poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960), was dedicated to her. In 1961, she was the co-founder with Finlay of the Wild Hawthorn Press, which also published the magazine Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. By 1965, she was with the American Dick Sheeler, and the couple spent several months staying with Ian and Sue Finlay at Gledfield Farmhouse in Ross-shire. Dick helped Ian to create the wall-mounted poems which were the first manifestation of his garden works. Jessie’s ‘Orkney’ chair proved to be a valuable resource when Ian was obliged to suffer a painful visit from the local dentist!
After the Finlays moved south to Stonypath, Jessie was often on hand to help with the growing family, though Ian did regret at one point that she was not on the phone … She also provided the necessary scholarly advice which resulted in the first Latin inscription to be installed beside the House Pond. Ian had initially installed a small wooden board, with the text ‘Please do not feed the boats’. Jessie advised on the new text, which would be carved by the local firm of Maxwell Allan: HIC JACET PARVULUM QUODDAM EX AQUA LONGIORE EXCERPTUM (Here lies a small excerpt from a longer water).
As the garden continued to grow, Jessie took care to continue to document its development with her own photographs. It was therefore appropriate that she should have eventually published the first full illustrated survey of Little Sparta in 2003, while continuing to commit herself to the further running of the garden as one of the trustees. The new edition of the guide to Little Sparta, published in 2021 with its invaluable historical details, is a fitting tribute to Jessie’s lasting devotion.