Art Review: Ian Hamilton Finlay at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta PIC: IAN RUTHERFORD
Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta PIC: IAN RUTHERFORD
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Exactly 50 years ago, in the autumn of 1966, Ian Hamilton Finlay moved with his wife Sue and their two young children to Stonypath in Lanarkshire. It was a bleak, treeless place, a thousand feet up on the south-western end of the Pentland Hills. Later renamed Little Sparta, over the next 40 years this unpromising spot was to become the internationally celebrated garden that was the artist’s most famous creation. Its fame and the memory of the controversy that surrounded it in the 80s when a dispute with Strathclyde Region developed into a theatrical Battle of Little Sparta have, however, tended to dominate the public profile of the artist-poet to the exclusion of a gentler, more subtle picture. He is in consequence too often remembered as a combative individual whose main creation was the garden that he filled with equally combative imagery of Panzer tanks and battleships.

Ian Hamilton Finlay: Early Works (1958-1970) *****

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

If that is indeed so, however, it is a wild misrepresentation and the current exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery (recently relocated to its original home in Carlton Terrace) provides a valuable corrective. The exhibition is a comprehensive display of Finlay’s published work from 1958-1970 including a number of new discoveries and a number of manuscript letters. These were the years of his transition from poet to concrete poet and then to poet-gardener and the show is a reminder that Finlay began as a poet. Words were his first vehicle. Everything he did later evolved from his position as a poet, although as his poetry led him in new directions and into new forms of expression, the originality of what he did took him beyond the simple character of either poet, artist, or indeed gardener. He was all of these and as so often, the sum was greater than the parts. His poetry was often playful and funny, but no less serious for being so, and these were characteristics it never lost, however embattled he became.

The works on show begin with collections of short stories and verse. Finlay then became a pioneer and master of concrete poetry. In this, the arrangement of the words on the page abandons the conventions of ordinary verse form to add a visual dimension that is quasi-pictorial. As the form of the poem is as important as the words with which it is integrated, these poems really needed to be published individually and so first appeared as cards or pamphlets. These are in effect printed artworks and so marked the beginning of the shift in his work from words on the printed page to inscribed objects as they were seen in his garden as it developed, but also in commissions. It was during these very first years at Stonypath that these inscribed objects began to supplement and eventually to replace, though never completely, printed works on paper.

These early publications include some of his most familiar concrete poems. “Star Steer”, for example, first published in 1965 and in several different forms subsequently, is a swaying column composed of the word “star” arranged in a contiguous stack. It suggests the pattern of light on water. Just above centre, one “star” is detached and in a lighter type. It is then echoed in the last word at the bottom of the column which, however, is not “star” but “steer”: starlight on water and we steer by the stars, a poem resonant with meaning but composed of just two words. In another lovely example, the “Sea’s Waves”, the tall, dark blue typography of the first two words shifts to light blue and drops a line for the third word which is “sheaves”. But the card is also folded. Its shape mimics the waves, but also the wind making waves in the corn as it does the sea. It is a wonderfully rich and complex poetic result, achieved with apparently minimum means. A selection of letters from Finlay’s correspondence with the publisher Hamish Glen, however, shows how much care and thought went into achieving this deceptively simple result. These letters include a manuscript proposal for a poem, “Swallow, the Cloud’s Anchor”, and in it he expands on his meaning to give us a glimpse of his imagination at work. “I was thinking of the swallow’s silhouette (he draws an anchor) and the drifting cloud which has no anchor, ever...”

There are many other examples in this rich show, a charming Valentine, for instance, and the whole series of Analects from the Fishing News, little excerpts from the fisherman’s paper turned into poetry, “Ocean Starlight/Towed off Rocks”, for instance. In the same fishing mode, a series of types of fishing net lifts at the end towards the metaphysical with “Planet”. Many of these early poems were later to take their place in different forms in the garden and if you know the garden at all that continuity is very striking.

The garden began with the formation of a series of ponds. As early as possible, they had boats on them and so he put up a playful sign, “Please don’t feed the Boats”. One of the first pieces that he

commissioned for this inchoate garden, too, was a cloud pool. It appears here as a concrete poem, printed simply in black, with two hands, one pointing up, the other pointing down, up to the cloud in the sky and down to its reflection in the water. Then there is the first drawing for the idea as a wooden sign post. Finally this was set in the still uncultivated landscape above a tiny circular pool, clouds above reflected in the water beneath. Forty years later this was also one of his very last works. A circular cloud pool, its rim engraved with the names of clouds was completed after his death in the posthumous “Hortus Conclusus” at Little Sparta.

The show at the Ingleby Gallery coincides with publication of Stonypath Days: Letters between Ian Hamilton Finlay and Stephen Bann 1970-72, the second volume in the planned publication of the extensive and illuminating correspondence between the artist, Finlay and the scholar, Bann. It was, however, a mutual interest in concrete poetry that first brought them together and the word scholar does not really do justice either to the breadth of Bann’s interests or the way in which his support helped build Finlay’s confidence in his own work. The letters in the new collection complement the exhibition very nicely. They vividly illustrate Finlay’s playfulness and humour, but in many cases the works on show also find an echo in the letters. Bann writes to Finlay about “Waves/Sheaves”, for instance. “It is quite simply the best example I have seen of the equivalence between the poem as object to be explored and the poem as image or conjunction of images. The structure, the superb lettering, the genitive sequence, the land/sea metaphor – all these levels are so exactly interfused. Quite a triumph!” Need I say more?

DUNCAN MACMILLAN

Until 26 November