Having just visited Little Sparta (for the second time) and The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, and been twice to Plaz Metaxu in the last year, now is a good time to reflect on the distinctly off-beat pursuit of the garden which tries to be seriously intellectual. And to think about all three at once.
Little Sparta (LS) is probably the best known of the three, created by Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (GCS) has been made by architectural and cultural critic Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick (and landscape architect). Plaz Metaxu (PM) is in Devon. The first two are well-known from articles and books, the latter only from one article in the Feb.2008 issue of (British) House and Garden magazine; its owner/creator is an intensely private man who wishes to have no more publicity; I rather feel I flushed him out into a too-bright glare of publicity, while inept handling by some colleagues has resulted in his desire to resume the life of an immensely thoughtful recluse.
To summarise, almost barbarously briefly: LS is about poetry and text, GCS an illustration of the principles which underlie the universe and PM about a personal philosophy which ranges from the metaphysical and spiritual through to the literary and psychoanalytic – that each part of the garden is named after a Greek deity is only the beginning. OK – I have used far more words to describe PM than the other two. Why is this? Because its actually got a lot more to say than the other two – indeed it makes them feel almost shallow in comparison.
The first thing which strikes me about these gardens is their privacy. LS was never easy to get access to, although the trust which now runs the garden has made it much easier, GCS is made very difficult to get to (you have to know people in the business to get the magic entrance documentation) and PM can be visited by appointment only. Inevitably these intellectuals are not directly addressing the (general) public, although Charles Jencks has written an exhaustive (and exhausting) book on his garden – one almost feels that he and Maggie made the garden to be photographed and filmed, but never visited. Finlay at least made his work available for exhibition. PM as the most private of the three is very much one man’s intimate working out of a personal philosophy, one too personal to be publicly engaged.
Related to a seeming lack of concern for direct public access is the lack of obvious routes in all three. There is nothing remotely dictatorial in how these three intellectuals wish their visitors to see their gardens. Which, given that visitors are not who these gardens are made for, is not surprising. At PM, it is easy to wander around, there are paths and obvious routes, there is a lot of lawn and grassland and the feeling of the place invites exploration. It melds beautifully into the countryside – it is actually a visitor friendly place. There are also some deliberate linkages across from one area to another.
Being at LS feels like walking the pages of the poet’s notebook, it is a complete jumble, stuffed with inscriptions, dotted at random around the garden with no seeming relationship to each other and only very rarely to the surroundings. But this is to take the garden on as an art-object – which it is not. It is a very personal garden which was not necessarily designed to be viewed by others – as such it creates a feeling of intimacy and spontaneity, of a privileged look into the mind processes of the poet. Apart from the one much-photographed view, where a quotation from the architect of the French Revolutionary terror Saint Just, is laid out in stone in front of a pool, with the Lanarkshire hills behind, this garden tends to look inward; much of Finlay’s work is overshadowed by the trees he planted to fend the wind (and sight) of his patch of blasted heath. There is the feeling that this garden is not meant to relate to its surroundings.
GCS provides remarkably little in the way of routing from one area to another, at times we were floundering around in bushes or muddy grass. Which somehow encapsulates my feeling about this garden. That despite its awe-inspiring content, its courage, and its sheer inventiveness, it is utterly cold, designed as an intellectual exercise with no emotion whatsoever. It is not actually designed for real people. But as a physical illustration of the mathematical workings of the universe it has extraordinary power.
Both LS and GCS have attracted comments such as “the most important garden of the 20th century”. In fact, what this illustrates is that the person concerned has shown themselves up as having very little knowledge of gardens. In a peculiar way, none of these three feel like gardens. LS in particular seems to alienate gardeners but entrance everyone else. None of these three have much plant interest (PM has the most), none really address the central intellectual nexus of the garden – the relationship between art and nature, although PM does relate very strongly to art and cultural landscape (ie. farmland). LS is a garden as space for poetry – I suspect that if Finlay had beached up making a garden in Mustique, it would not have been that different. GCS is a garden as a vehicle and site for illustrating and making concrete equations – again, if Maggie Keswick had inherited a slab of Hong Kong instead of Scotland (it was in HK that her ancestors made the money which enabled them to create and maintain what must have been/still is a phenomenally expensive project) then we would have had a tropical version, which would have looked very much the same.
By the way it sounds like I don’t like LS – in fact I do, but not as a garden; it makes me think and gives me ideas, and many of the individual works are marvellously creative and witty. All three of these gardens do that. And make you think, which is far more than most gardens do.
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