Ralph Irving and the making of
the English Parkland
Ralph Irving retired as Little Sparta’s head gardener in 2013/14. He had worked alongside Ian Hamilton Finlay for over twenty years meeting him on a daily basis in the garden to discuss projects and the ongoing maintenance of the garden. Ralph had responded to an advertisement Ian placed in The Scotsman and came to work with Ian in the early 1990s and maintained and installed many new works at Stonypath/ Little Sparta. For several summers he worked at Fleur d Air, the garden in the South of France, named after the Windflower, the anemone. After Ian ‘s death with the help of John Brazenell he worked on the demolition and transformation of the ruined barn into The Hortus Conclusus under Pia Simig’s supervision. But Ralph’s major achievement is the part he played in the creating of the English Parkland, not just preparing the sites for the installations but in the transformation of the landscape and the drainage of the marshy wet soil of the donkey pasture amongst the thistles (which Ian called Assyrian warriors), grasses, rushes and Meadow Sweet.
In a conversation recorded in 2008 on the Waterways of Little Sparta, Ralph describes the land in the donkey pasture as “full of meadow sweet and pretty wild...nettles which were shoulder high”. [Nettles were something Ian and he shared an active dislike of.]
Ralph explains that he ordered a small digger: “We had the digger for the pipes – the new water supply for the house and had to dig out a trench all the way down from the top of the hill...let’s have some fun with the digger before it goes back- it is here now, we paid for the transportation, let's dig a couple of new ponds. That is what started off the English Garden.”
Thus the process of the making of this new garden came about almost by accident, through the availability of the digger and their daily meeting. The 'possibility' of the English Parkland may have become apparent the time the new ponds were dug.
Robin Gillanders interviewed Ian for his book of photographs Little Sparta, Portrait of a Garden for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The book was published in 1998, during the making of the new garden and coincidentally out of the twenty nine works in the English Parkland the greatest number - nine works - are dated 1998 and five the following year 1999.
Robin Gillanders: “Ian, I would like to talk more about the garden and why you spend so much time and energy on it . . .”
IHF: ”Basically because it was a possibility – the ground was there and so there was the possibility, and I like to realize possibilities. That was the main thing at the beginning. And then of course you get interested and it makes its own propositions to you. But there is also the magic in changing a bit of the world – I really like that - I really like that feeling – more satisfactory to me than just painting a picture . . .”
The making of the English Parkland was not without its setbacks for Ian and Ralph. Ralph remembers, “We tried planting the orchard in there but there was no protection.” Cold winds from north and east stunted the orchard’s development and surviving trees were moved to different parts of the garden.
Ian and Ralph had more success with Huff Lane but this area had problems as well, "Generally we tried everything to get a hedging effect up - apples, brambles, beech trees again, [and] poplars. It was a case of survival of the fittest to eventually create the enclosure."
When Ralph planted the outer boundary hedge of poplars Huff Lane had shelter and thrived.
Ian had worked as a labourer on Rousey, in the Orkneys in the 1950s. He had made the early paths and ponds in the garden. Wellingtons and spade were as much his tools as paper and pen. The English Parkland made at the end of his life was something Ralph had to do for him. Ralph was his hands.