The “sacred grove” of antiquity, exquisitely situated on the margin between the natural and the cultivated (cultured) worlds, was ideally the habitation of a god or gods. Or, more accurately, it was a charmed spot, seemingly lifted out of place and time, where mortals might encounter and commune with the divine. Such groves, in part discovered, in part shaped or cautiously “improved”, were conceived to be irresistibly inviting to their resident spirits. Sheltering woods and quiet pools, purling streams, leading vistas, light “aires” and dappled, or tempered, sunlight would be the sensory enticements.
The two remarkable gardens created by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), the northern Little Sparta on the windswept moors of Scotland’s Pentland Hills and the southern Fleur de l’Air within an ancient hillside olive plantation of Provençal France, are worldly expressions of the “sacred grove”. For all their sensory beauty, they are deadly serious undertakings.
At every turn along Little Sparta’s paths or in its glades, at more or less unexpected spots of marked loveliness within Fleur de l’Airs rugged grounds, language – now plaintively, now aggressively – waylays the visitor. Plaques and tablets, stelae and stiles, benches, bridges, column bases or capitals, urns and more all carry words or other signage (signs being, in Finlay’s hands, but abbreviations of language). Finlay’s use of inscription in the landscape consciously harks back to the Neoclassical English garden of the 18th century and to a tradition of the garden as a place, in Finlay’s own words, “not [of] retreat”, but of “attack”; a charged locale eliciting serious or “noble” poetic, philosophic and even political thought.
Finlay’s language, in relation to the objects upon which it is inscribed and the landscape in which it is positioned, functions in the end metaphorically to evoke an ideal and radical space, a space of the mind beyond sight or touch.
His works, like all strong poetry, move through the concrete and literal in order to vividly recapture the Ideal; and the gardens of Little Sparta and Fleur de l’Air are transfigured, as we walk and are stirred to “parse” them, into magnificently allusive poetic texts.
The gardens differ, though, in many ways: location (north-of-Hadrian’s-Wall Scotland vs Provençal France), origination (voluntary versus commissioned), scale, ownership and the length of time devoted to their making. Their most significant difference, however, is one of temper or mood – a dissimilarity of character deriving from Finlay’s poetic stance toward each garden and announced, aptly, in the two gardens’ names. “Little Sparta”: a martial state (and conflict-aware state of mind); “Fleur de l’Air”: a windflower or a thought-floated flower of the air.
Little Sparta, where Finlay lived and worked at deliberate arm’s length from the commonplace (“secularised”) world, is a garden re-armed to call up the Ideal. It bristles with images of warfare and revolution (political and natural): even its most invitingly – disarmingly – intimate imagery is barbed, however sweetly; and it has been shaped as much by intellectual inquiry and subversive wit as by delicate poetic turns. Little Sparta was created out of a self-imposed isolation (solitude) and experienced by Finlay daily, in both hardship and pleasure: it is stern (“northern”) and intense (idea and work-packed).
Fleur de l’Air – which Finlay abstained from visiting until after it was completed (renunciation) – is, by contrast, pure poem: its site in an ancient olive grove of the Provençal and, earlier, Roman landscape, a short distance from the unseen Mediterranean, allowed Finlay, in imagination, to literally insert his works into a classical pastoral landscape and into the Latin pastoral tradition of elegised love, vitality and beauty.
Fleur de l’Air is a modern idyll built on imagery that solicits the eye – and ultimately the mind’s eye – perhaps more than any of the other senses. (It is also, one visitor noticed, eerily devoid of birdsong, and only the wind is heard as the breath of the nearby Mediterranean.) Where Little Sparta has been wrested piece by piece out of raw nature into an Ideality, Fleur de l’Air embodies a tantalizing neo-Arcadian dream. In recollection, Fleur de l’Air is light and colour, but light and colour as nostalgia: silver-and-gold-shot (redolent of olives and lemons, of the Golden Age and the silver Sea), and streaked with ethereal blue.
Little Sparta, in recollection, is “heard” more than “seen”: it murmurs with myriad, only half-intelligible “voices” – with our culture’s vast tumbled history of attempts, ever new and ever failed, to seize through representation (that is, art) Nature’s living force and beauty. (Little Sparta, too, is aurally alive with the sweet, fugitive song of birds.)
Both gardens are “sacred groves.” They make use of nature to create a place of solitude and sensory loveliness away from the world of man.
An excerpt from ‘Einsamkeit Und Entsagung/Solitude and Renunciation’: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Zwei Gärten/Two Gardens, edited by Pia Simig, Wild Hawthorn Press, £25
Little Sparta, located in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, is open to the public on select days from May 27-September 30. Fleur de l’Air is closed to the public