Reflections on art and landscape

HOW many Scottish artists have made a worldwide reputation, but have stayed at home to do it? Raeburn did certainly, the Colourists maybe, but very few others, and I don’t count meretricious, media hype success of the Turner Prize kind.

Ian Hamilton Finlays garden, created in collaboration with David Paterson in 1979. Picture: National Galleries of Scotland
Ian Hamilton Finlays garden, created in collaboration with David Paterson in 1979. Picture: National Galleries of Scotland

That is not reputation. It’s froth. One artist who did have international success, however, was Ian Hamilton Finlay and he did it staying not just in Scotland, but without leaving the confines of his famous garden at Stonypath that he called Little Sparta. He gave it that name in opposition to Edinburgh, the Athens of the north. In the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Sparta was victorious.

Finlay carried out no less than 80 public commissions throughout the world. His work was widely exhibited overseas too. His reputation at home is still too little defined, however. Generally we know of him, but I think it is fair to say we do not know him. One reason for that is his art is complex and sometimes demanding, but it is also true it is not readily available. Little Sparta is there to be visited, but its hours are limited as the landscape is fragile. (It’s open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoons, 2:30-5pm, from 24 May to 29 September.) The National Gallery of Scotland has a very full collection of his publications which are numerous, but very little of his more substantial work. For years it was part of the Athens against which he did metaphorical battle. One important work it does have, however, is Nature over again after Poussin, currently on view at the Park Gallery, Falkirk. (It has been added to Artists’ Rooms. You might ask why, after costing £20 million, does it need additions?) It is a good introduction to Finlay’s work.

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It was in 1979 that he gave Little Sparta its name and this work was made that year in collaboration with photographer David Paterson. It is a set of black and white photographs of the landscape at Little Sparta. As though the landscape itself was signed by them, each has the signature or monogram of a great artist of the past, Dürer, Poussin, Claude, Ruysdael, Watteau and others, beautifully inscribed on a stone and set in the foreground. It is a dialogue with landscape in art. That was what he went on to develop in his garden, but these photographs also bear witness to how much he did there. Some of them show little more than a bare hillside, but it was that onto which he projected his vision. He was thinking his way through art to landscape and back to landscape as art.

The photographs are half-folded to stand like upright open books and make a half circle like standing stones. There is also gentle flute music playing in the background. It was composed in 1979 by Wilma Paterson for the first exhibition of the work. The flute is the instrument of landscape, echoing the pan pipes of the shepherds of pastoral poetry. Inscriptions are the essence Finlay’s art and quotations from Virgil and other pastoral poets are a constant reference at Little Sparta. But there is also the music of the wind and the trees. On the main gate as you look out from the garden over the fields and hills is written ‘The Fluted Land’. The music is in the land itself.

The very first art work Finlay put up when he moved to Stonypath in 1967 (there are now more than 250) was an inscription with the two words Mare Nostrum. It was on the only significant tree there was then and is a Latin phrase for the Mediterranean, “our sea” to the Romans. He is bringing classical civilisation to the wild hills of the Pentlands. But typically this is also a pun. The rolling hills look like the sea. So in turn, they are “our sea”, our own mare nostrum. Little Sparta is full of imagery of ships.

In Nature over again after Poussin, Finlay liked the enclosure that the fold in the photograph provided. It makes each picture a private experience, something to contemplate inwardly. The brick paths that wind through the garden are also just wide enough for one person, a solitary walker, so they invoke Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker. An 18th-century philosopher of nature, of gardening and of revolution, Rousseau’s ideas are reflected everywhere at Little Sparta and Finlay maintains the link between nature, gardening and revolution, too. Communion with nature is restorative of nature in us, but to achieve a more natural social order entailed revolution. Then in turn revolution is like gardening. It involves digging up, clearing away, pruning and all sorts of drastic measures. Gardeners are necessarily Jacobins and the French Revolution is one of Finlay’s constant themes.

Gardening he said, however, is a process not a state – it can never achieve final order. It can only hold a line against disorder. The metaphors in that idea flow through his work. In fact, the garden itself is a metaphor.Created on a bare hillside 1,000ft above sea level, it represents the human struggle to maintain a moral order in the face of violence and disorder. Finlay is a moral artist, but he had a lively sense of humour too. One of his rare public works in Scotland was European Heads, written in neon on the side of New St Andrew’s House for the meeting of European heads of government 20 years ago. It was straightforward except that the word heads was in red and looked as if it had been chopped off as though by the guillotine. Fortunately officialdom didn’t understand the joke, or maybe just chose to ignore it rather than do battle with the artist.

Little Sparta needs constant care and attention. It belongs to the Little Sparta Trust. (To declare an interest, I am a trustee.) How should the trust preserve something that by its nature is constantly changing? What should be the goal?

If you look at Nature over again after Poussin and then make a trip to Little ­Sparta, it is hard to recognise the landscape. The change is not just because of all the work put into it. It is nature and nature doesn’t do ­aesthetics. Last time I saw Finlay at Little Sparta, cows had broken in and made a mess. He was most upset. Cows, poor things, he said, they have no aesthetic sense.

It is a fragile landscape and that puts a limit on it too. Tourism too easily destroys what it professes to love and hardly goes with Reveries of a Solitary Walker. That ­limits Little Sparta’s earning power. One way forward is partnership and discussions are under way with the University of Edinburgh.

The garden is a rich resource – there is so much to learn from it. But keeping it going is only one necessary objective. Celebrating the artist is another. We ought to adopt him for the image of the new Scotland as Catalonia has adopted Miró, but we haven’t done so, not yet at least. We missed the opportunity to claim him as our own and celebrate his 80th birthday by making him Scotland’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 2005, the year before he died. That would have been a fitting celebration. Instead we sent a bunch of non-entities who are already ­forgotten. It would be a challenge to live up to the unflinching clarity of his vision and the sharpness of his humour, but surely that’s exactly the kind of challenge that we need. A start would be to install the work he proposed for the parliament building. An ­inscription on the stairs about individuals and togetherness, it would have been a beautiful encapsulation of democracy. Officialdom chickened out, but maybe it’s time to think again.

• Ian Hamilton Finlay, Nature over again after Poussin 1979-1980 is at the Park Gallery, Falkirk, until 16 November. For more information on Little Sparta, visit