“Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks,” announces a sentence on the wall in the Ingleby Gallery, home to a new exhibition of the work of the Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006).
The aperçu captures Finlay’s essence: a whimsical wordsmith with a pugnacious streak and a passion for nature. Yet it also hints at his darker side. Whether he was describing his stone poems as “a harmony of opposites”, struggling to tame nature into sympathy with his art, or literally mobilising troops against a troublesome local council, conflict was inherent to his creativity. He adored the serenity of classical civilisation yet was drawn to the turbulence of the French Revolution. His garden was inspired by Hellenic Athens yet named Little Sparta, after the Greek capital’s enemy.
Hats off to Ingleby’s excellent effort, because mounting Finlay’s work in a gallery presents challenges. In his younger years, he railed against the commodification of art: “O Fat Old Dealers, O Art School Professors, O shoddy virtuosos ... you are all going to hell,” he wrote to his friend Derek Stanford in the late 1950s.
In later life, sustained by the expertise of his companion, the Hungarian curator Pia Maria Simic, Finlay made peace with “the art racket”. He was represented by Victoria Miro in London and exhibited in museums including Tates Liverpool and St Ives.
Trickier to negotiate than Finlay’s ethical reservations is his artistic style. He might be termed a land artist, but his vision is different from that of Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy. Those two tamper with nature to create sculptures that brood with savage grandeur when confined to a white cube; Finlay’s creations are domestic creatures whose ideal home is Little Sparta. In an introduction to Selections, a 2012 edition of Finlay’s poems, his son Alec writes that he saw a poem as “a ‘joint’ hinging ‘the work of art into its surroundings’ ”.
Sensibly, Ingleby makes its showpiece “Carrier Strike” (1977), one of Finlay’s rare forays into audio-visual art. With photography by Carl Heideken and music by John Purser, it re-enacts the Battle of Midway, the encounter between the US and Japanese navies in 1942 that was critical to the outcome of the second world war.
“Carrier Strike” features an ironing board as an aircraft carrier bearing toy planes whose might is unleashed against battleships (wooden irons). Shot in black and white, the music – an inspired blend of timpani, piccolo and harpsichord – surges from perkiness to poignance as the toys tumble into the black void. Spectators are moved and mystified: has an epic tragedy been transformed into a homespun yarn or vice versa?
Such elisions are signature Finlay. Born in the Bahamas to a Scottish family in 1925, he was sent to boarding school in Scotland at the age of six. A passion for the local countryside – “no school ... but pinewoods, wee burns, rabbits, trout, salmon, mountains ... what happiness” is how he remembers life as a wartime evacuee in the Highlands – was tempered in the 1950s by his embrace of Greek philosophy. In Finlay’s lithe imagination, the bothy blended with the Greek temple; the “wee burn” flowed into a Virgilian stream.
After Glasgow School of Art, Finlay began as an expressionist-style painter before embracing a literary vocation. By the 1950s, though suffering from a “hell of tension and fears” that would result in the agoraphobia that afflicted him for much of his life, he was producing poetry that, despite “not knowing that all this stuff existed”, turned out to be the apotheosis of avant-garde.
Although confined by agoraphobia, he had a boundless talent for literary communication. As well as poems and letters, his publishing venture Wild Hawthorne Press put him at the hub of the burgeoning international movement known as concrete poetry.
Finlay summarised this phenomenon: “The poem is not about the beauty of this or that but simply beauty.” Texts featured patterns of words, often repeated or altered, so that the form counted as much as the content. Blessed with the hypnotic visual rhythms found in some minimalist painting, his poems are objects of contemplation as much as of comprehension.
A beguiling display at Ingleby of Finlay’s printed works on paper includes the early example of concrete poetry, “Le Circus (or Poster Poem)” (1964). Coloured inks echo the layout of a circus poster to conjure the riders “who leap BARE-BACK through the rainbow’s hoop”.
Drawn to gardening, Finlay gravitated to engraving his poetry on outdoor surfaces. Inspired by country tombstones and their classical forebears, he embraced brevity – single words or phrases – “as some kind of implicit statement about life, death and time”.
An example at Ingleby includes the milestone from 1991 engraved with “Man. A Passerby”, redolent with echoes of “Et in Arcadia Ego”, the painting by Poussin that alluded to death in the most idyllic pastoral Eden. Also present is “Do you know, gentleman, what a stile is like?” (1994). A wooden stile bearing the words “A Horizontal Tension, A Vertical Tension”, it plays with the observation of the De Stijl luminary Theo Van Doesburg that a city is “horizontal tension and vertical tension. Nothing else.” De Stijl, the stile. Get it?
To appreciate fully these highbrow jinks, a visit to Little Sparta is essential. Bought in 1966, the garden outside Edinburgh that Finlay painstakingly created in collaboration with his second wife became the canvas for his vision. He transformed a labyrinth of groves, burns and paths into a literary Arcadia that stays faithful to the untamed soul of its native Scottish moorland.
At Little Sparta, the names of Greek heroes butt against characters from Shakespeare and French revolutionaries. A plaque stamped “Cusanos” – a reference to the medieval philosopher Nicholas of Cusa – lurks at the base of an ancient wall; the name of Robespierre decorates a watering can; a phrase by the latter’s protégé Saint Just – “The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future” – is carved on to rugged slabs overlooking a patchwork of hills. Metal second world war battleships rest on brick walls; silhouettes of Apollo and Daphne dance in the trees. Finished after Finlay’s death by Simic, a medieval hortus conclusus has been planted with roses whose doughty vibrancy in the Lowland mists is redolent with pathos.
The temptation is to weave these disparate moments into a linear narrative. Yet that would be counter to a mind whose nimble leaps across cultures and centuries epitomise postmodern practice at its most original and pure. (It is a measure of Finlay’s singular sensibility that, unlike his younger heirs, he credits the craftsmen who make his works.)
In his last years, Finlay overcame his fear of travel to visit sites where his work was to be installed. At Jupiter Artland, a contemporary sculpture park outside Edinburgh, several of his works nestle in a wood. Most telling is the milestone that enjoins us to “Only Connect”. The phrase is EM Forster’s but Finlay made its spirit his own.
‘Ian Hamilton Finlay: Twilight Remembers’, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, to October 27