Men of letters: Getting to know reclusive artist Ian Hamilton Finlay

The artist Ian Hamilton Finlay was notoriously reclusive, but over a long working relationship, typographer Tom Bee got to know him – through the post, discovers Lee Randall

Some of you reading might remember a small exhibition mounted at Edinburgh’s National Library, in the spring of 2005. Called “of conceits and collaborators”, it was the brainchild of Tom Bee, a lifelong Edinburgh resident and typographer by trade, who was one of the collaborators helping Ian Hamilton Finlay realise his artistic vision.

Finlay, an author and conceptual artist, is perhaps best known for creating Little Sparta, the magnificent garden surrounding his former home in Lanarkshire’s Pentlands. What’s less well known is that he didn’t actually produce his pieces himself, but orchestrated their creation by artists, tradesmen and craftspeople, each of whom brought a unique talent to the service of Finlay’s ideas.

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His personality was as colourful as the art was sublime, and Finlay was renowned for his battles and vendettas. But that combative side was just one aspect of a complex personality. Listening to Tom Bee talk, a different picture emerges.

Bee is modest to an extreme degree, and keen to stress that he is one of Finlay’s least known collaborators because “that is exactly what a typographer/artworker should be – indiscernible. Evidence of the typographer’s presence isn’t important, the easy transference of the author’s information to the reader is. I only took a part in bringing a number of Ian’s smaller print pieces, his ‘conceits’, into being.”

A slender display cabinet showcases examples of his exquisite, pristine work for Finlay, but an even more interesting treasure trove occupies one long shelf in his study. Here, a series of ring binders bears testament to meticulous business practices, and stands as a reminder of a world lost with the switch to e-mail and paperless offices.

What’s really amazing is that Bee and Finlay collaborated for more than 15 years before they ever met. The work was commissioned entirely via an exchange of letters. How did this remarkable collaboration begin? Bee, now 73, had served an apprenticeship as a reproduction artist. “Nowadays it’s difficult to find a printer in Edinburgh, but it used to be one of the largest homes of printing in the world, for all over the world,” he recalls. “It was the early 1950s. ‘Get a trade’ was always said to young working-class men at that time.”

He worked as an office junior in an advertising agency at Charlotte Square, then moved to Hislop and Day, who urged him to take the printers’ exam. “I did a five-year apprenticeship – hand lettering, airbrush retouching, photographic retouching, anything that produced things printers could print with – and became a general commercial artist.”

It was the dawn of the Mad Men era, and advertising was both glamorous and lucrative. “People didn’t know much about print production. A lot of money was being spent, and they needed people with more technical knowledge. Eventually three of us started a company we called Artwork Associates.”

Bee was “introduced” to Finlay in the late 1970s through the photographer, Dave Paterson, another of his collaborators. “I had no idea who he was. I just knew he was a new client and a fun one, offering interesting, unusual work. Finlay introduced me to a cultural aspect of life that I hadn’t really dealt with much, and allowed me into it by explaining, ‘This is what I’m trying to achieve by this,’ and ‘You may know of this, but this is when so and so met so and so, and this is when that happened, and I want this to be represented here.’”

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Finlay’s letters were typed on variously coloured Little Sparta letterhead. “He would come along with an idea – for instance a leaflet that has an accordion fold that goes into a specific-sized envelope – and I would choose the typeface, send him samples of different paper stocks to choose from, and then do the production drawings of the artwork so it could be reproduced by the printer. He’d ask me how he could physically make something come about, and I’d do that using type.

“There was no way we could do something wrong because it was interpretive, and I would give him two or three ways of looking at [something], so we never fell out. We reduced the possibility of confrontation by pretty constant communication and approval on each step.”

In the 1980s and 90s, Finlay’s jobs came fast and thick – as many as three or four per week – ranging from cards to proposals for major installations all over the world.

Finlay’s day was organised around the post – if it was late, he couldn’t start work – as well as the weather. “Little Sparta is on the top of a hill, off a tiny little track. The weather is in all his letters. He dealt with everybody in the world through post, so the postie was more important than anyone else. He never, to my knowledge, ever used a computer. He used a phone, but not that often. And, initially, he used his wife, Sue. She had a little motorbike and used to drive the 40-odd miles to come and give me stuff.”

Bee saved the letters because it was good business, and because they contain valuable reference material. “Finlay was very precise and succinct. Here, for example, ‘It’s Valentine’s time already. If I’m to have this in time it would need to be given a certain priority.’” That seems rather subtle for a man notorious for being confrontational. Yet Bee rarely saw that side of the artist. “In advertising [the work] was all done in a day. Ian came along with no timescale, and that was the only area where he used to sometimes get slightly shirty, because I maybe did not do [his job] for a week or two. He’d say, ‘This is in a hurry,’ not knowing that I could do it in a day. Anything he asked, I could do in a day.

“We only had one falling out, not completely, but I was not attending to him as fast as he’d like, because he was not my main stream of business. In fact, it was an indulgence on my part, though he always paid well and on time and it was something I enjoyed doing. It was a challenge meeting Ian’s precise demands. Can we actually get it right? Can we make this fold do what he wants it to do? And sometimes they’d be tiny little pieces, done by hand. Finlay was always appreciative. Always a nice letter back, ‘I’m so delighted.’ You don’t get that commercially. Ian did that really well, from his hilltop, sending out missives.”

Despite not meeting him, Bee must have built up a sense of his client’s personality? “I thought he was an eccentric artist and a recluse, though he didn’t live alone, he had children and a partner. Ian was a poor soul. A man stuck somewhere out in nowhere, a terrible place, shit, mud and whatever. He made a garden out of a wilderness, a blasted heath, as it’d be called in England. There was a spring at the top of the hill, and he and his wife – never take away from her – they made a garden that is one of the most famous in the world, but it’s not palatial. They made two lochans; they made and designed bridges out of sandstone. And he had an allotment alongside, which was just as much a part of his Little Sparta wars.

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“Remember, he was born before the war, left school at 14, went into the army. War was part of his early life. It is very much part of what we lived with – so I can see why he retreated, though he said, ‘Gardens are not retreats, they are attacks.’ Attacks on the countryside. You abuse the countryside, you carve it, put trees in. I think that’s bloody brilliant.”

They met, finally – against Bee’s better judgement, because he didn’t want to fall out with Finlay – when an emergency job forced Finlay to take the unprecedented step of asking him to drive out to Little Sparta to discuss what had to be done. “It was an autumn night. He came to the door wearing his big fisherman’s socks – white, thick, oiled. It was a country cottage, with the bed in the sitting room beside the fire. It was a freezing cold place. Roaring fire, Ian there in his socks, a couple of big chairs. He laid all the photographs out on the bed. I took notes, and said, ‘Leave it with me.’ After that we met on a few occasions. I went out to Little Sparta with my wife, Gloria.”

Then the agoraphobic Finlay came out of Little Sparta – Bee reckons he’d been diagnosed with cancer at this point. “I suspect that his mortality jolted him. Suddenly, or so it seemed to me, there would be an exhibition and there would be Ian. He even went to Germany. I think once he was out he realised he could do this.” He recalls encountering Finlay at one of the exhibitions, which was mounted by Richard DeMarco. “Ian was there, sitting on his own, and he looked like a poor soul. Nobody was speaking to him – they were probably oohing and ahhing upstairs, saying what wonderful work, and had no idea this little old man sitting in the corner was responsible for it.

“I went over to say hello, and Ian said, ‘I’d really like to go home for my tea. Nobody’s said how I’m going to get home.’ I knew him well enough to know that these kinds of things were important, so I drove him out to Little Sparta. I think from then on I felt more for him because of his frailty. I’m not a soft person, but this is somebody I really admired. And then he was going into a home, and I wondered who was going to visit him. So I would visit and we’d chat a bit, but we weren’t friends. I was somebody who could do things for him, and he reciprocated by being friendly towards me, rather than matter of fact.”

At the end of the day, says Bee, for all the high-flown art-speak, and all the talk of concepts and classicism, he enjoyed working for Finlay because it was an education, and it was fun. “I loved the humour, which anybody could access. Ian and I had a symbiotic relationship. I think it’s similar to that between an architect and a draughtsman. The concept and sketches are Finlay’s, the working drawings, the materials and production know-how is mine.

“To my mind, Ian was able to do something that was better than some of the things fine artists do themselves: he was able to find the best people in Britain to do the work that he wanted. I thought that was such an achievement, and that he worked with really nice people. Anybody I’ve ever met who worked with him is sound. That, in itself, is really interesting. The collection of collaborators was part of his best work, and should be illustrated. All these people were like tools that he picked up and used, and that is a wonderful thing to be able to do.”

• The Ingleby Gallery (15 Calton Road), is mounting an exhibition devoted to Ian Hamilton Finlay from 2 August to 27 October. Throughout this summer’s Edinburgh Art Festival the Little Sparta Trust will run bus tours from the Ingleby Gallery to Little Sparta. Contact the gallery for more information: