Special Interest Item
Ian Hamilton Finlay
October 28, 1925 - March 27, 2006
Scottish poet and artist who turned his Lanarkshire grounds into Little Sparta, a celebrated shrine to pacifism. Ian Hamilton Finlay: in Little Sparta, as his garden came to be known, he embodied his ideas in concrete form with inscribed stones and sculpture
SURPRISINGLY for a poet, perhaps, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s most striking, best-known and internationally celebrated creation was a garden. Over many years he gradually turned the grounds about his Lanarkshire home into a unique assemblage of sculptures, structures and inscribed stones called Little Sparta. The ideas given concrete form in Little Sparta range widely over philosophy and myth, but the over-arching idea was Finlay’s uncompromising hostility to war, in all its forms from Homer onwards.
Also surprisingly for one whose life and art were devoted to the pacifist cause, usually expressed in terms of a rather chilly Neo-Classicism, Finlay was famously prone to confrontation — with everyone from his local council in Scotland and the various British Arts Councils to the French Government itself. He did not believe that being a pacifist obliged one to be passive when one’s own intellectual bona fides were challenged. If he felt ill done by — and he often had good cause — then he was happy to hit out on his own behalf, whether through the courts or with a barrage of letters which might range from the insulting to the defamatory. This tendency brought him much wider fame than might have been expected from his artwork alone. His running battles with Strathclyde Regional Council over whether he should pay commercial rates on a ruined cow byre in his grounds, converted into what the council claimed was a commercial gallery while in his eyes it was a garden temple, made news in a way that hardly any art exhibition could ever hope to. He had already had a well-publicised brush with the but-is-it-art controversy: in 1976 he was unwittingly drawn into the hullabaloo surrounding Carl Andre’s bricks, when shortly afterwards the Tate bought a wooden board by Finlay, painted with the words “Starlit Waters”, for “£500 of taxpayers’ money”. But all this proved merely a run-in to his greatest conflict, in 1988-89, with the French Government over a commission first accorded, then precipitately withdrawn. In 1987 the French Government commissioned from Finlay a “Revolutionary Garden” in Versailles to commemorate the bicentenary of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the Estates General in the course of the French Revolution. Shortly afterwards, an article appeared in the French magazine Art-Press alleging that his use in one of his inscriptions of the word osso (bone in Italian) with the double “S” in the style associated with the Nazi SS showed that he was a neo-Nazi. This was absurd enough to be ignored for the moment. But a few months later a private dispute between Finlay and one of his collaborators, the Canadian sculptor Jonathan Hirschfield, became public when Hirschfeld published extracts from letters Finlay had sent him. In them, Finlay unwisely applied to the Jewish Hirschfeld’s case terms such as “deportation”, and referred to their animosity as “perhaps racial”. This all became a cause célèbre in Paris, and the Government, cancelled the commission. The affair dragged on for a couple of years, including a case for libel brought by Finlay against Art-Press and the French radio station, Europe 1. Finlay won this, but it was a pyrrhic victory, the complainant being awarded damages of one franc. Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in the Bahamas of Scottish parents in 1925. He was called up in 1944, and served in the Army for three years. When demobilised in 1947 he attended Glasgow College of Art, though he considered himself then primarily to be a writer — and indeed throughout his career referred to himself as a poet rather than an artist. After college he lived in Perthshire, making a precarious living by writing: he published a volume of poems, The Dancers Inherit the Party, and had several scripts broadcast by the BBC. In 1966 he made what was to prove the most momentous decision of his life, by moving with his wife into a property at Stonypath in rural Lanarkshire, with extensive grounds which would eventually come to be known as Little Sparta. Here he began to work on the garden which became central to his life’s work. The transition from writer to visual artist was gradual. As a poet, Finlay had become dissatisfied with, as he saw it, the failure of verse on the page to reflect its meaning in purely visual terms. Then by chance he found a book of Brazilian writings which exemplified “concrete poetry”, in which the look of the text on the page was as important as, if not more important than, the bare significance of the words. Many of his subsequent works have taken the form of brief poetic texts beautifully lettered, printed or cut into stone tablets, alongside sculptural pieces in which the words, if any, are used for their visual associations and evocative effect. A severe sufferer from agoraphobia, Finlay was virtually confined to Little Sparta for more than 20 years, and concentrated much of his creative energy on its garden, which is now tightly organised with inscribed stones, monuments and whole buildings, many reflecting, by way of myth and legend, on the subject of war. Though it is perhaps inevitable that so intense an obsession has to contain its own opposite, in terms of an almost morbid fascination, no one who knew any of his work at first hand could possibly imagine that he had any sympathy with Fascism or organised violence of any kind. Though the form of his work is usually Classical, with sometimes surreal overtones (as when, for instance, he invents a pastiche figure of Apollo with a machine gun substituting for the original bow and arrow), Finlay never claimed any skill as a craftsman. That he left to his assistants, who were, despite Hirschfeld’s well-advertised dissatisfaction, always fully credited and treated as collaborators. Finlay made a shibboleth of precise execution and first-rate technical qualities in any work associated with his name, and to achieve this he chose to work with top calligraphers and carvers, though there is never any doubt that the essentials of concept and design are entirely his own.