Book Review: Little Sparta

Scottish Society for the History of Photography
‘Studies in Photography’ 1998

Book Review:
Little Sparta: A Portrait of a Garden

By Robin Gillanders, Alec Finlay and Ian Hamilton Finlay

Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland 1998
ISBN 0903598 85 X


This Book is an evocation of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden of Little Sparta, some twenty miles south west of Edinburgh, the Athens of the North. On the one hand it is a collection of outstanding photographs by Robin Gillanders, on the other it is a visual and verbal discourse on Finlay’s art. More than any other photographer I am aware of, Robin Gillanders has come into touch with Finlay’s thinking in the making of his own work. These images of the garden and its philosophy in stone form the core of the book in a way that is both precise and sympathetic, but sympathetic in the enlightenment sense of responding to and participating in the view of another person.

Its perhaps too much to say of any photograph of a work of art that it reflects the way in which the artist himself sees his work, but nevertheless these photographs by Gillanders are very close in spirit to Finlay. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s art concerns itself with contrast and metamorphosis and in Gillanders’ photographs there is an immediate understanding of this. Not least it is found in a sensitivity to the preservation of detail while making use of the contrasts of illumination and shadow which are commonplace at Little Sparta. This unification of subtlety and clarity could not be more appropriate to Finlay’s work.

While the book is primarily a visual exploration, it gains a further level of interest from the context provided by a series of ‘detached sentences’ by Ian Hamilton Finlay himself, together with an afterword by the co-editor of the book, Alec Finlay and an illuminating interview between the artist and the photographer.

The first of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sentences sets the tone both for the understanding of Little Sparta and for the exploration of Robin Gillanders’ photographs. It reads ‘A garden is not an object but a process’. In his afterword, Alec Finlay brings insight both to his father’s work and to the photographic response to it. The last of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sentences reads ‘In the 18th century, paintings found their fulfilment as actual landscapes; in the 20th century actual landscapes find a fulfilment in photographs’.

After that perhaps there is no more to say, although there is much more to perceive in this beautifully designed and well produced book.

Murdo Macdonald
Selected Reviews