Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925 – 2006) was a creator of polymath ability: a prolific visual poet, artist, and the designer behind Little Sparta, a sculptural garden set at the foot of the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. Throughout June and July, the Victoria Miro Gallery in London is presenting an exhibition of his artworks, observing 90 years since his birth in the Bahamas. The exhibition curates examples of Finlay’s work produced around the recurrent theme of the French Revolution for which the Scottish poet attracted international acclaim. The sculptural installation A View to the Temple (1987), for example, is paradigmatic of Finlay’s neoclassical-inspired style. More about Finlay’s moral and political entanglement with this era in French history can be found on the gallery’s website. Yet while the artist’s sculptural works are what earnt his global reputation, his oeuvre of several hundred prints, books, booklets and poems published through his own imprint, the Wild Hawthorn Press are the germination for his art. The Library has amassed an extensive printed archive of around 150 limited-edition works spanning Finlay’s early outputs from the 1960s onwards.
Finlay is known to have enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art before being called up to serve in the British army during the Second World War. The French Revolution was one notable theme with others including Finlay’s revisiting of fishing-boats, aircraft, warships and the exploration of classical texts by writers such as Virgil. The dramatic motifs of guillotines and warships contrast with subtler seafaring and nature themes, however each work explores the relationship between word and world – the addition of a single letter, for example, transforming the local into the global. As philosophically inquisitive as Norman MacCaig and as visually conscious as Edwin Morgan, Finlay’s work hybridises the ideas of classical philosophy with those of concrete poetry. His exploration of words as both lapidary and transient ‘things’ may be seen in the thousands of ‘poem-objects’ and one-word poems he created, effectively word-sculptures formed out of the simple arrangement of words on a two-dimensional page. The strength of the Library’s collection of such works lies in this manifestation of Finlay’s life-long preoccupation with the medium of language.
As can be seen in pieces such as Gateway to a Grove, Finlay’s work constantly meanders from the classical to the modern. His inquiry into the mechanisms by which human-beings can communicate ideas through lexical form is reminiscent of Plato’s ‘Forms’ while the relationship between signifier and signified can be viewed as a visual embodiment of Saussure’s semiotic project. The dialectical nature of his work is humorously demonstrated in his dispute with Strathclyde Regional Council over a cow-byre-cum-gallery in Little Sparta. Following the council’s withdrawal of rates relief they had previously given to the gallery, Finlay decided to label it a ‘garden temple’ in the hope of receiving the rates relief given to religious buildings. The council’s refusal to accept this building as a temple led to a long-running dispute that would continue for many years and serves as a useful allegory for his fraught relationship with the modern.
Wild Hawthorn Press also printed the magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. which, between 1961 and 1967, featured poems by Finlay and his Scottish contemporaries. P.O.T.H. is accessible digitally through the online website UbuWeb alongside several other of his works.