Shepherd, poet, writer, designer, artist, gardener, philosopher. These are some of the many hats
of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006). Across his writing, publishing, collaborations, garden designs and his outlook
in general, Finlay had a fundamentally poetic view of the world. In this fascinating artist I have found poetic inspiration with a quirky edge and gentle humour, which is both moving and delightful. There is a thread I see running throughout his life and work; the creation and design of poetic space, often as a response to disorder in the world.
“Everything for me has been home-made. I was never at university or anything. I was always in the outside — so, I worked things out for myself”
- Ian Hamilton Finlay, 2001
Born in the Bahamas, Ian Hamilton Finlay was brought up in Glasgow and the Orkney Islands. He had been sent to Scotland from the age of six to attend boarding school. In 1943 he attended just one year at Glasgow School of Art, following which he worked as an assistant in a commercial art studio. He also worked for a year in advertising and copywriting.
In 1942 Finlay joined the British army after being evacuated to Orkney. This experience is echoed in art later in his life (warships, fighter jets and tanks became repeated symbols in his work). At the end of the war he worked as a shepherd, before beginning to write short stories and poems. His books (such as The Sea Bed and Other Stories) were published. Even though some of his material was broadcast by the BBC, Finlay never became well known for this work, as his publishers were somewhat obscure.
In 1961, Hamilton Finlay established the Wild Hawthorn Press in Edinburgh with Jessie McGuffie. Under this a range of writers and artists were published, although the press became best known for publishing his own work including kinetic booklets, poster poems and poetry published on unusual materials (for example tiles and glass). In 1966 he and his second wife Sue brought a five acre farm at Stonypath Farm in Lanarkshire. Here he eventually began to compose poems to be inscribed in stone and other materials. The farm was eventually named Little Sparta, because when local authorities decreed that Finlay had turned his property into an art gallery and should therefore pay higher rates. He refused to pay, as he believed his garden was a temple. Sparta is the traditional enemy of Athens (and Edinburgh the Athens of the North).
Finlay’s experimental work in the garden context led to him being known as ‘the avant-gardener’. He completed several garden design commissions for others, all designed from within the walls of Little Sparta. In later life he was a chronic agoraphobic and hardly ever left the farm. This introverted way of being was also present in his earlier work; his early writing and stories would often feature a young protagonist forced to confront a problem posed by the social world. However this did not stop him being outspoken in his own way, and for a quiet man he was part of a wide social circle. Guardian writer James Cambell described him as having a kind of “canny naivety” (2003, the Guardian), personality traits which shine through in his work. My impression is that Finlay was very self-aware, demonstrated in a lovely description of himself as “in a wee homemade way, a sophisticated person” (2003, the Guardian).
Throughout his life and work, certain themes and symbols appeared in Finlay’s writing and poetic creations. Finlay spoke a nautical language of boats, fishing, sea and sailing, and also one of war, weaving his politic, philosophy and connection to the classical into the work. He explored these wide-ranging themes whilst maintaining a connection the the everyday. This meeting point between the heroic and the domestic has been described as classically Finlayesque (Ingleby Gallery, 2012).
THE ETERNAL POET
Ian Hamilton Finlay’s preference for short, concise poetry may have begun when he worked in advertising and copywriting. He said in a Guardian interview that during this time he learnt “something about brevity”. At times his poems would be just a word or simple phrase, some even having a riddle-like quality. An example of this is the following set of nine words from a longer poem, carved on a wooden bench built around a large old tree at Little Sparta:
THE SEA’S WAVES
THE WAVES’ SHEAVES
THE SEA’S NAVES
At the end of the war Finlay made friends with several poets, including Hugh MacDiarmid. Finlay became closely associated with a group of American writers, connected to the Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley. In 1961, he established the Wild Hawthorn Press in Edinburgh with Jessie McGuffie, and published collections of poems by Objectivists and Black Mountaineers, such as Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker and Jonathan Williams.At the same time, Finlay set up a poetry magazine called Poor. Old. Tired. Horse (POTH), after a line in a poem by Creeley. Whilst popular with these American poets, he was unpopular in Scotland. The artistic conservatism at the time was suspicious of his lightheartedness and sense of humour, in someone who was transitioning from writer to artist.
An important stage in this transition was concrete poetry, the movement which Finlay is most associated with. The term concrete poetry was coined in the 1950s, and is nothing to do with concrete in the sense of materials! It refers to a typographical arrangement of words which is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on. It is sometimes referred to as visual poetry (although visual poetry is a broader term). In 1956 an international exhibition of concrete poetry was held by the group Noigandres. Two years later a Brazilian concrete poetry manifesto was published. By spring 1963, Finlay had featured the concrete poets Augusto de Campos, Pedro Xisto and Marcelo Moura in the sixth issue of P.O.T.H. In 1963 Finlay published Rapel – a collection of concrete poetry. He published much similar work through Wild Hawthorn Press in a variety of forms.
Although it was as a concrete poet that he first became widely known, Finlay later disassociated himself with the movement.
Finlay stretched the idea of poetry to the extremes, including the material a poem or poetic sentiment can appear on. At Tate Britain in 2012, a number of his works were on display in different mediums: stone carvings, bronze objects (for example a guillotine, gun, and spade), standalone 3D letters, neon signs, books, tiles and posters.
Nestled amongst heavy sculptures and text was a small glass nautical float, sitting in a pile of pink and yellow fishing nets. It was hand-inscribed with uncharacteristic handwritten calligraphy “there is a ship named the wave sheaf” – again referencing Finlay’s poem: Is There A Ship Named The Wave Sheaf?
This little sphere (of which sadly no image is available) offered a little tactile sensitivity amongst all the concrete and solid text. Finlay’s work is find moving and powerful, but lightness of touch is rare in his statements and objects. However the diversity of materials and forms in which he expressed his poetry embodies a freshness. As stated on the exhibition literature, “his approach to his work – whatever material he used, whether wood, stone, neon, bronze or paper – remained that of a poet giving form to ideas.” (Tate Britain, 2012)
At Little Sparta, Finlay began to write his words into stone. This sculptural work was always carried out in collaboration with craftsmen, for example typographer Ron Costly. In the garden he began to ‘plant’ poems, integrating them with the experience of being at one with nature. The 5-acre garden includes concrete poetry in sculptural form, polemic and philosophical aphorisms, together with sculptures and two temples. Altogether it includes over 275 artworks by the artist, created in collaboration with numerous craftsmen and women. Built over 40 years, it cradled many of Finlay’s artistic and philosophical beliefs.
POETRY, ENVIRONMENT & SACRED SPACE
“At every turn along Little Sparta’s paths or in its glades, language – here plaintively, there aggressively – ambushes the visitor. Plaques, benches, headstones, obelisks, planters, bridges and tree-column bases all carry words or other signage; and this language, in relation to the objects upon which it is inscribed and the landscape within which it is sited, functions metaphorically to conjure up an ideal and radical space, a space of the mind beyond sight or touch.”
- Prudence Carlson
At Little Sparta, Finlay created his own sacred space. As mentioned previously, the garden was a temple to him. Using his creativity he designed a space to hold his philosophical beliefs and to express his poetic worldview. In this act he crafted a vessel for his own spirituality. The thought and mood provoking tone of his work creates a meditative space which I have only entered in a gallery setting, but I imagine is far more powerful in it’s intended context; the natural environment. Finlay’s political stance and beliefs relate closely to the space he created at Little Sparta. He was a passionate advocate of the principles that inspired the French Revolution, and often referenced Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, a military and political leader during the French Revolution. In an interview with Jacket Magazine, Finlay spoke about piety, not in terms of “some narrow Christian piety or something dogmatic [...] As a feeling, piety is almost completely absent from our culture — and I deplore this situation”.
THE PRESENT ORDER IS THE DISORDER OF THE FUTURE
The Present Order is a sculpture at Little Sparta conceived by Finlay and carved by Nicholas Sloan. It consists of eleven blocks of stone lying on the ground which look like a ruin, suggesting fragments of what was once a larger message. The words “the present order is the disorder of the future” is derived from a speech by St Just.
The question of whether the order of words is correct is posed by the maker. Finlay asks this in a print version of the work which gives instructions to cut around the outlines and arrange them in order, but the fragment edges are too crumbled to match so it must be done by intuition.
This work deals with memory and prophecy, past, present and future. A grand but long-forgotten past lies deteriorating, reclaimed by nature. It is what Jay Griffiths might call a ‘sideways look at time’
“Time is a political subject. It is a crucial part of the language of power , between nations, and classes, between men and women, between humankind and nature. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time”
- Jay Griffiths, from Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time.
A puzzle waiting to be solved, these words lie there. The sense of confusion provoked by their presence stirs up more questions than what the right order is; they make us want to change not just the words but the world around us, which may have been Finlay’s true intention. As he transformed his world through creating a poetic space, he invites us to do the same in ours.
- – - – - – -
The Sackner Archives: http://ww3.rediscov.com/sacknerarchives/Welcome.aspx
Concrete! Documentary about the visual poetry collection of Ruth & Marvin Sackner