Ian Hamilton Finlay. 1925 - 2006
(By Rosemary Strang)
The artist Ian Hamilton Finlay died on the 27th March, two days ago. I was not a personal friend, or even acquaintance of Ian Hamilton Finlay, but I’d been inspired by his work as a student, been out to see his garden Little Sparta at Stonypath near Edinburgh and learned much about the history of its creation during my time as assistant archivist at the Demarco European Art Foundation six years ago.
News of his death inspired memories of my first visit to Little Sparta. I’d seen photos of his garden and had expectations of monumental, awe-inspiring sculpture. I wasn’t prepared for the domestic scale of some features, or the personal and almost fragile feel to parts of the garden.
We wandered through each area a little pond set in a mossy lawn with a sculpted shell and poetry about Aphrodite, through the young birch forest planted by Ian and his wife Sue, read philosophical quotes carved into stones at the foot of the trees. Then we climbed out over the fence to the top of the hill where Finlay has created a loch amongst the moorland rushes. In the foreground, against the backdrop of the Pentland Hills, a basaltic column rises from the loch. Sculpted to suggest the form of a half submerged nuclear submarine, it is a reminder of our capacity for war and destruction, while in front of us a pastoral idyll of hills, fields and forests unfolds towards the horizon.
After we’d eaten our lunch by the side of the loch, we walked back through the birch forest and Ian emerged to say hello. I’m glad that he shook my hand. He had a hesitant, shy manner that made me feel a bit of an intruder into his private world, and the image of childhood games came to mind the creation of a transient arcadia amongst the trees and bushes, hidden from unwanted intruders.
Finlay is now an internationally acclaimed artist, respected as a pioneer of concrete poetry and for his public sculptures. His work is in the collections of art museums across Europe, but he was initially unappreciated here in Scotland, particularly in the seventies when he came into conflict with the council over rent issues. His response was to claim exemption on the grounds that his garden was in fact a temple used as a place of worship. More recently his work has been recognised by major Scottish galleries. It would be difficult to ignore his sheer output alone and many subsequent artists (sea navigator and adventure poet Ian Stephen being an apt example) have been inspired by his mold-breaking synthesis of landscape experience, art, literature and philosophy.
From its modest beginnings in 1966 - situated improbably on a barren, moorland summit near Dunsyre, buffeted by East Coast winds and beleaguered by council bureaucracy, Stonypath is now an internationally recognised monument to Finlay’s ideas and determination.
Ian Hamilton Finlay was inspired by the philosopher and ‘Father of the French revolution’ Rousseau. This fragment, from ‘Reveries of the solitary walker’ seems an apt tribute to the reveries that inspired the creator of Stonypath, and for the reveries Stonypath continues to inspire:
Quelquefois mes reveries finissent par la meditation, mais plus souvent mes méditations finissent par le reverie, et durant ces egarements mon âme et plane dans l’univers sur le ailes de l’imagination dans extases qui passent toute autre jouissance
Sometimes my reveries end in meditation, but more often my meditations end in reverie, and during these wanderings my soul roams and soars through the universe on the wings of imagination in ecstasies which surpass all other pleasures