IAN HAMILTON FINLAY’s 80th birthday is being celebrated with four exhibitions. Ruth Hedges embarks on a tour that takes her to Little Sparta.
‘ he art of gardening is like the art of I writing. of painting. of sculpture: it is
the art of composing. and making a harmony. with disparate elements.‘
It could be a statement of intent. confession. explanation or declamation of truth. Painted in blue. cursive script onto the wall of one of lnverleith House‘s top rooms. it is about as close to summing up Ian Hamilton Finlay‘s philosophy as is possible. Of course. Iittingly. it is in matter what it says — elegant. harmonious. balanced.
The last few days have been a journey of discovery — taking me across a festival-flung Edinburgh and into the Pentland Hills where the silent undulations are still. soothing and lonely. Having completed this unfolding quest. the galleries responsible for curating and co- ordinating the exhibitions and trips to Little Sparta in celebration of Finlay‘s 80th birthday. are to be congratulated for having themselves made a harmony from these disparate elements. Each show reveals a deep respect and appreciation for Finlay‘s work - they work separately. but best together.
That‘s not to say. however. that each of Finlay‘s conceived works — prints. poems. sculptures. plaques — are about harmony. Far from it. The violence of the French Revolution. the threat of nature and the doomed state of happiness loom large in type. sculpture and print. In the same room as the quote above. large. dark blue capitals proclaim: ‘lI)Yl.I.S FIND IN THUNDI-ZRS'I‘ORMS’.
Little Sparta has gained mythical status and is. perhaps. the holy grail of all in search of what IHF is about; what his 80 years have worked
70 rue LIST FESTIVAL MAGAZINE m 75) Aug mos
towards. When he moved there in 1966 with his famin there was nothing but the hillside and farmland. Now. the five acres are a self- contained world of woodland. streams. ponds. vegetation. rocks. vistas and paths. The thinking that has gone into ever turn. rise. fall and angle is that of an artist and philosopher.
The word 'composition' is important. As a poet. he composes with the shapes of words. not
just their sounds. structure and meaning. He and
Iidwin Morgan were founders of the concrete poetry movement in the 60s. As a gardener he
LITTLE SPARTA IS THE HOLY GRAIL FOR THOSE IN SEARCH OF WHAT FINLAY'S ABOUT
composes the land with nature. words. sculpture. motifs and carving. In sculpture. the forms are composed of references to poetry. philosophy. nature and history.
It is important to point out two things here: one is that Finlay doesn‘t actually make the works of art or prints — they are always in collaboration with other artists. For him this process is integral to the work; developing relationships and combining skills with the aim of creating the best realisation of the concept. The other crucial factor is that his abiding obsession with the French Revolution can be found referenced everywhere.
Indeed. it is one of the main themes in selected prints works. stone carvings and sculptures on show at the Ingleby Gallery’s [.es Idyllc (Im-
of Glooms and Solitudes
and not of plants and trees.
(‘criscsu In one tiny pamphlet. Fittlzty"s ubiquitous image of the watering can is explained (one of the first things I noticed at Little Sparta was a painted watering can tucked against a mossy wall: at the Ingleby a wheelbarrow full of watering cans. '28 Juillet. 1794‘. is carved into Portland stone). The little printed book sitting on one of three wooden shelves explains how the Republican Calendar. created in 1793. took the watering can as a symbol for a day (each one was represented by a plant. a tool or an animal. rather than a saint as in the Catholic calendar). On 28 July. 1794 (a watering can day) Maximilien Robespierre. a leader of the French Revolution. was guillotined on the Place de la Revolution along with 21 of his associates in a climax to the reign of terror. Napoleon abolished the calendar in I805.
The pamphlet where I learned about this is one of the works published by Wild Hawthom Press. established by Finlay and Jessie McGuffie in I961. The Scottish Poetry Library is showcasing this aspect of his work with a small selection of prints hanging on the library walls. Again. the craftsmanship of the books is a pleasure to experience — the softness of the card. the shapes suiting the forms of poetry — tactile and clever.
Finlay and Edinburgh haven‘t always got on. But they have tnade their peace. Opening the gate at the end of the path to the garden I saw a frail old man. shuffling by. smiling. Maybe thunderstorms sometimes end in idylls too.
Ian Hamilton Finlay: L’Idylle des Cerises, Ingleby Gallery, until 17 Sep no. ; Sentences, lnverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, until 23 Oct «on; Early Works From the Wild Hawthorn Press 1964-1971, Scottish Poetry Library, until 7 Oct coo ; Little Sparta, Pentland Hills, trips from Inverleith House every Wed and Sat, until 10 Sep on”