TO SOME it is a labour of love that brings symphonic harmony between man and nature. To others it is simply an artistic folly on a bleak Lanarkshire hillside.
But Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture garden, has been voted the nation’s greatest work of art in a survey of leading art experts.
The survey, conducted by Scotland on Sunday, asked 50 gallery directors, art historians, auction houses and artists themselves what they believed to be the most important work of Scottish art.
It follows a UK-wide poll conducted in the run-up to this year’s Turner Prize, which takes place tomorrow, which was won by Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the white urinal he signed and put on display in 1917.
Each expert was asked to select what they believed to be the three most important works from any period of Scottish art. These were then ranked using a points system.
Little Sparta was the clear winner, receiving almost three times as many points as the second placed work of art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.
In third place was the "skating minister," Sir Henry Raeburn’s 19th-century painting of Revd Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, which is hung in the National Gallery of Scotland.
Fourth was Sir David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo, painted in 1822, while fifth was Allan Ramsay for his 18th-century portrait of his wife Anne Bayne Ramsay.
Other artists, however, were ranked not for specific works but for their general contribution to the art world.
So the 80-year-old sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi was ranked sixth and East Lothian painter John Bellany, one of Scotland’s most collected contemporary masters, came seventh for the whole body of their work.
The neo-classical work of Gavin Hamilton for his sequence of paintings on the Iliad (1764) was eighth, while William McTaggart’s 1895 Sailing of the Emigrant Ship was ninth.
The artist S J Peploe was nominated in tenth place for his 1905 work, The Black Bottle, in addition to other pieces.
The result is a triumph for Finlay, 79, who was born in the Bahamas to Scottish parents but returned to Scotland to study at Glasgow School of Art.
During the 1950s he worked in agriculture and began to write poems and plays. In 1966, he moved with his wife into a house, Stonypath, in Dunsyre, 20 miles west of Edinburgh, where they still live today. There he created the landscaped garden with temples, statues, grottoes, glades and a series of urns, columns, monoliths and headstones, many of them inscribed.
Named Little Sparta as a reference to Edinburgh’s ‘status’ as the Athens of the North, it now has seven separate areas, an allotment and a section of English parkland. As a whole it has been a model for private gardens across Europe.
Iain Gale, the art critic for Scotland on Sunday, said: "Gradually the garden began to take on a special importance for Finlay.
"Its theme was the classical tradition, and is avowedly anti-modernist, employing, as has all his art since the 1970s, the language of classical art and architecture to lure his audience in before hitting them with an unexpected punch line."
Those who selected the garden as the single most important work of Scottish art of all time include the artist Calum Innes and Amanda Catto, the head of visual art at the Scottish Arts Council.
Magnus Linklater, chairman of the Little Sparta Trust, which was set up to conserve and maintain the gardens for the future said he was "absolutely delighted" at the decision.
Linklater said: "This is recognition at long last of one of Scotland’s greatest artists. Little Sparta is one of Scotland’s unknown jewels."
Michael Clarke, the director of the National Gallery of Scotland, also selected the garden in his shortlist. He said: "Pilgrimages from around the world are made to Finlay’s extraordinary garden.
"Hailed as one of the inventors of ‘concrete poetry’, Finlay’s highly pictorial garden, which has been described as a living homage to the classical tradition, is widely regarded as his most important work and has a truly international reputation."
Duncan Macmillan, Professor Emeritus of the History of Scottish Art at the University of Edinburgh, said it was "internationally celebrated and influential".
Francis Mckee, associate curator at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, said: "I think Little Sparta is a masterpiece, 40 years in the making - a meditation on art and revolution. Perhaps it is the fact that it’s so wedded to the landscape gives it such resonance in Scotland. "
Art expert Richard Demarco said: "Finlay has turned every single hedge, tree and plant into a work of art involving hundreds of sculptures. It is important because art experts from all over the world have travelled to Lanarkshire to marvel at it."
Richard Ingleby, of Edinburgh’s Ingleby’s Gallery, said: "Taken as a whole, it is the father of 20th-century conceptual art in Scotland. Everything he has done since in any medium anywhere in world links back to Little Sparta and to that simple premise of trying to impose order on chaos, building a classical garden in the middle of nature."
But many of the art experts, including James Holloway, the director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, nominated Glasgow School of Art which came second. The building, on Renfrew Street, is renowned as a Charles Rennie Mackintosh masterpiece. Completed in 1909, it is a work of outstanding beauty and originality on a difficult sloping site, they said.