Thursday, 20 May 2010

Alec Finlay talk at Edinburgh II

A talk by Alec Finlay at the National Gallery, Edinburgh on 18 May 2010

see my earlier post of 18 may 2010

A gift, twice given, once lost: a talk for National Galleries of Scotland

for Florence and Richard Ingleby: for their care and respect for Ian’s work and the generous understanding of its legacy.

Today’s theme is the gift – and before beginning I would like to thank the National Galleries, in particular the Dean Gallery and library, which given a safe haven for Sue Finlay’s archive, including her notebooks which describe her work on a host of collaborations with Ian – most importantly, of course, the garden at Stonypath, Little Sparta. The family would like to encourage anyone who wishes to gift papers or letters relating to Ian and Sue to consider The Dean as our preferred choice.

Two Boats

To begin then, I would like to take up Ian’s profoundly Heraclitean vision of the world, dividing into pairings that sparkle in their wedded opposition: day/night; terror/virtue; trellis/guillotine. And now, here are a pair of boats – let’s call them opposites, but not opposed.

(Sea Eck)

A boy’s boat (and girls)

A family boat

A toy boat

A boat for a pond

A lost boat

A boat made by Ian

(Artist Rooms boat)

A crafted boat

A perfect boat

An old man’s boat

A boat for a gallery

A protected boat

A boat made for Ian

What unites these boats is that they were gifts. The boat which is the centre-piece of the current exhibition was a gift twice over. First it was gifted to Ian by Bernard Starkmann (collector and patron), whose Fleur de l’Air is a latin cousin to Stonypath. It is indeed a beautiful boat, almost too much so in terms of sailing. This is a boat in exile from the water; a boat that never found a home at Stonypath. So, to the notion of the gift I will now add two other words: exile and home. As we shall see, these are fundamental to Ian’s life and work –

and what object could be more symbolic of this than the boat, whether it is carrying the emigrants to exile from their native land, or delivering the sailor safely home from the sea.

Anthony d'Offay’s was the second gifting of this particular boat; part of that incredibly generous bequest to the nation – a corrective to Saatchi’s portfolio of baubles and celebrities. Anthony was briefly part of Ian’s circle in the early 1960s, when he was a student and Ian an impoverished poet living in Fettes Row – and here we voyage back, through time, before the sail of the Sea Eck had ever been hoist, before there was even a pond dug at Stonypath.

For all its grand perfection, the twice gifted boat in the Artist’s Room is recognisably a found object, animated by Ian’s wall texts. The skill which crafted it, is also what adapts it, without awkwardness, to its new surroundings. It has become an inland boat, just as Stonypath is an inland and island garden – both are always dreaming of the sea.

The toy boat(s) raise even interesting questions, today, than the boat-artwork. The Sea Eck was part of a fleet of smaller toys – model fishing boats, warships, gliders – that Ian made throughout his life. Most days he would spend a half-hour in what Ailie and I called ‘Dad’s Wee House’; a shed, where he would relax with balsa wood and humbrol.

Note that simple word, made; unremarkable, surely, when we are referring to the work of an artist. Made. But the status of these toys is fascinating, and they reflect on the garden in a crucial way, precisely because they are among the only things that Ian actually made, with his own hands – these toys, together with the ponds, paths, and little islands, around which the garden gathers itself.

Ian always referred to his toys as his refuge, during a time of personal and artistic crisis; and he also acknowledged them as the catalyst in his evolution :from poem, to concrete poem, to poem-construction, to poem-object, and finally, to garden-poem. That is: from indoors to outdoors; from the page to the composed environment.

Jessie McGuffie, Ian’s partner at the time Anthony d’Offay knew him, has recently written affectionately of these toy objects, telling us how Ian loved them because they were pure – always an ideal state for this particular poet. However, because her essay avoids referring to the personal anguish Ian was suffering, the deeper meaning that the objects themselves held for Ian remains partially obscured. Ian’s agoraphobia was very severe at this time; he was cloistered in a small flat, in penury, stuck unhappily in the city – the toy boats represented a mixture of freedom, voyaging, childhood and yearning. They also recalled a founding memory for him: his father’s schooner and the early idyllic years that he spent in the Bahamas.

It is no coincidence that the boats were among the few crafted objects that Ian made; for their status as ‘pure’ depended on the fact that they were never conceived of as ‘art’. He found that he could make them because they had no truck with the vulgar commerce of the art world, which he detested. He found himself able to model them, and to gift them, because they were without guile, or monetary value; because, put simply, they were not conceived at the time to be art. I stress the point, because it reflects on issues of status that relate closely to his sense of self; and this determination to construct something that has feeling, affection, a quality of gift, separate from commerce, would later define the garden at Stonypath, Little Sparta. What unites the toys and the garden is that they were gifts: one sailed, the other anchored, but neither was for sale. It was this quality of the gift that Sue was able to support, in such a special way. It was also the repudiation of this quality of the gift by the authorities that would lead to the Wars of his later years.

Rousay – his little black sheep

The boats Ian made were also a memory of the time he spent on Rousay, Orkney, in the late 1950s – another key period in the development of his art, and a time he always recalled on fondly. Rousay defined the crucial concerns that would be embodied when he came to conceive the garden. Physically, the platonic perfection of the island – with its one hill, one mill, one road, one pool, one temple (prehistoric, not Ionian) – is the primary psycho-geographical antecedent to Stonypath. Ian called Rousay his ‘golden dream’ and his ‘dear little black sheep’. In conversation with the artist and poet Alistair Peebles, who is doing important research into Finlay’s Rousay, and also with Ian’s friend Malcolm Fraser, we each came to realise that the island is the perfect recreation of his inhabitation of Stonypath, the farm on the hill.

With reference to Ian’s agoraphobia: it was in many ways an invisible illness, but it defined a boundary that remained constant for 30 years. His anxiety did not relate to physically being indoors, or to keeping sight of home; it was determined by an imaginative or spiritual boundary, which he obeyed absolutely. Every day Ian would go for a walk with Sue, and sometimes with Ailie and I, in a peaceful patrol of the bounds – a circuit that is uncannily similar to the silver road that rings Rousay – and perhaps this explains why the island remained a comforting and magical place to him. The walk led towards the west, to the vale, by way of Stephen’ Banns monument , on around the moor to the sheep fanks, down Anston Burn and home by the quarry. It is a relationship defined by his one-word poem, ‘Fragile’. Many friends will have taken this walk with him. This Stonypathian walk that loops around the moor is as crucial to understanding the garden as any poem-object. It illustrates his need for a wild but bounded place; a sequestered dwelling which would contain all the necessary elements of the world – oceans and islands, a kitchen, hearth and lots and lots of books.

The boat was Ian’s most constant loved symbol, because it combines the voyage and home. The ocean was always a vast waste representing space – a manifestation in natural form of the terrifying void – the sea of time, upon which the boat floated; vulnerable but secure; a carapace and shelter in the storm. Another constant point of reference for Ian was the shore, that boundary which is both constant and lonely – whose emotional meaning he made clear in the detached sentence: when our friends leave us they take away our shores. Friendships always brought with it the potential of exile: for him, or from him.

Now I’m going to read some Rousay poems, and we will see how its folk delighted him.


1. Peedie Mary Considers the Sun

The Peedie sun is not so tall

He walks on golden stilts

Across, across, across the water

But I have darker hair.

2. The English Colonel Explains an Orkney Boat

The boat swims full of Air

You see, it has a point at both

Ends, sir, somewhat

As lemons. I’m explaining.

The hollowness is amazing. That’s

The way a boat


3. Mansie Considers Peedie Mary

Peedie Alice Mary is

My cousin, so we cannot kiss.

And yet I love my cousin fair:

She wears her seaboots with such an air.

Peedie is the Orkney word for ‘wee’. Many Orkney girls have two Christian names, and many Orkney men are called ‘Mansie’, which is the diminutive of ‘Magnus’.

These quirky peopled poems show how the character and temperament of the Orcadian suited Ian. The colonel’s poem captures that the love for the boat form, which would be transformed in his work: from story, through concrete poem, glass poem-object, garden-poem until it culminates in the centrepiece of the ARTIST ROOM – no longer a model or a metaphor, but a boat.

The specific analogy of the lemon was repeated in different idioms, culminating in his version of Goethe’s kennst du das Land – do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom – again, the same theme of longing for a true homeland, connecting in Ian’s mind the crofter and fisher folk of Orkney with Puvis de Chevannes Poor Fisherman, the ideal homeland of the classical world, or a Juan Gris still life. For Ian, Art is what allows us to feel the world is our home. And here is Finlay’s House (in Rousay)


And this is Finlay’s house –

A wild stone on the floor,

Lots and lots of books

And a chair where you can’t sit for

– No, not the tar –

The hooks, the lost fish-hooks.

Dried fish festoon the wall

And that stone sticks the door.

Spiders spin in nooks.

The visitors tend to fall:

They trip first, then they fall –

They catch on the lost fish-hooks.

I ought to shift that stone

But it seems easier

To unscrew the door.

Am I an awful man?

I’m better housed than ducks

And like to lose fish-hooks.

For many years the cottage at Stonypath had a similar feel of Bohemian rusticity. Ian’s most famous story, The Money, can be imagined as having taken place on Rousay, as his poem ‘OHMS’ makes clear, recounting the same morality tale in miniature:


The now familiar themes: home, exile, and the struggle for the artist to define the potential and the status of our lives, in the face of bureaucracy – refer to Ian’s own experiences of poverty, unemployment and long-term illness. Critics and historians have skirted around, or suppressed, this personal aspect of the work, in an odd and sometimes eerie way.

The ‘black look’ that Rousay gave is a precursor to Ian’s declaration of his own inland-island garden as Little Sparta; a domain where art defines topography, where the writ of the clerks and officers of Strathclyde Region would not hold sway. In The Money the artist offers to resign from society and his social entitlements, because commerce is antagonistic to the principles of art. In the Little Spartan War the artist refused to declare himself an exiled individual: exile he accepted – chose even – but now, armed with the entire cultural tradition, he declared UDI and insisted on the status of his island as a domain. The hermit turned from retreat to attack:



A story like The Money clearly takes place in ‘Finlay’s House’. Some critics have been happy to note Ian’s charm and whimsy, allowing themselves to connect poems such as ‘Finlay’s House’ to an entire strain in his work celebrating the domestic – from teapots, benches and toys, to poems on cups, vases and embroideries. The same critics have been reluctant to draw such connections between his life and art, in terms of the darker themes of illness, exile and conflict. I sometimes envy them this one-way door into Ian’s vision, but it hardly does the work justice. Ian did repudiate the poetry of confession. His dislike of self-expression is one thing, but few recent poet’s have so clearly staked their life to their art.

I would like to think of the gift I have to share with you today is a sense of how Ian’s life and art relate; and, in contradiction of his own argument, how he makes the connections very clear, in his own writings. I would now like to read what are key texts – in which Ian gives us a portrait of home and of exile, the ideal artwork of the garden, the wry amusements of domestic daily life; and the persistence shadows of exile:

Domestic Pensees

Sentences on exile

Almost without exception, recent studies of Ian’s work have ignored these crucial texts. The two sentences of Ian’s, now justly famous, to which his apologists always refer to are: A garden is not an object but a process; and: Certain gardens are regarded as retreats, when they may in fact be attacks. You may have spotted that the ‘garden is a process’ sentence first appeared in his Domestic Pensees.

There has grown up a pattern of treating the garden as an object, and circumscribing the process – the living, evolving, collaborative process of the garden and gardening. I’m sure that there are many people here who knew Ian, or met him on a visit to Stonypath. I’m also sure that listening to those sentences – the amusing ones and those filled with pathos – memories of him flooded back. Ian’s sentences and letters amount to a wonderful and revealing commentary – a vision of his world, and a moving discourse on the processes that some critics have ignored. While some accounts of the garden have made passing reference to our home, the picture they have painted is, as it were, defined by the ‘object’ view of Little Sparta. It reads, to me, as if the authors have appropriated Ian’s charm for themselves, separating it off from the real family’s domestic life – which is, after all, what he responds to so delightfully. You could summarise this criticism as: all the pets have been turned to bronze.

In the same way, these critics have tended to detach Ian’s witty notion of the garden as attack, from the very real conflicts that came to dominate Ian’s art and life – indeed, all of our lives – in the 1970s and 1980s. The various famous, and now historical, Finlayian Wars are treated as morality tales, performances or enactments of Enlightenment principles; but they were far from simply pitting the rational cultured philosopher-poet against the barbaric oppressive and ignorant forces of, well – let’s say the Arts Council or Strathclyde region. The disputes also had an irrational and almost mythic aspect. After all, they did arise from Ian’s feelings of exile.

We would do well, as lovers of Ian’s work, to summon the courage to go beyond protective, loyal, circumscribed accounts of Little Sparta; and remember that the issues Ian raised were, still are, moral, social and philosophical, but they also arise from his own sense of anomie, and his personal crisis.

The Stonypathian and The Little Sparta

Before I go any further, I want to define two terms – two names – which I feel help define a more balanced account of the relationship between Ian’s life and art. Recently, I was talking with Robin Gillanders, Ian’s friend and collaborator, about a new work he is doing, which depicts the indoors of our family home, just as it was when Ian died. Robin had the thoughtfulness to ask me what I considered such a work should be titled, in terms of its name. Like many people, we have got in the habit of referring to the garden as Little Sparta – like many of you, we might say “shall we make a trip out to Little Sparta, to see the garden?”. In recent years I think we’ve both been re-evaluating Ian’s life and work – and maybe this prompted his question? It was certainly nice to be consulted. My reply was that, as far as the family are concerned, the only accurate name for the garden is Stonypath, Little Sparta.

Stonypath is the ancient name of the farm and its land. The garden was composed out of its parcel of land. Little Sparta is the name of the territory – really of a country – which Ian created as an imaginative act. It is primarily a political name – I mean, it represents the status of this domain and embodies his idea; not the flowers, trees and paths.

If we remember back to Rousay, casting a ‘dark look’ on the OHMS inspector: Little Sparta is Ian’s transformation of that personal sense of exile, anger, personal crisis, into a name – and a status – that claims, demands even, equality with the various political, social and cultural authorities with which he was in conflict. Little Sparta is a gift with boxing gloves on.

It is not merely psychologism to say that Ian’s love for Rousay, and his vision of Little Sparta arise, from his agoraphobia, his feelings of ‘exile’. As a culture we are mature enough to admit and admire a poet or artist, whoever they are, for their ability to translate their wounds into forms, symbols and expressions that we can witness and learn from. That is their gift an we must respect it. The sentences on exile are sensitive, touching and revealing. The word ‘exile’ may even come to convince us of the meaningfulness of that particular wound to the human condition, in a way that medical terminology does not. That can be seen as Ian’s gift, to confer a new – or old – status on this common human feeling. The tendency in most of Ian’s critics, to obscure the reality of his life and ignore the texts and letters – which so movingly anchor his ideas in experience, his objects in processes – does tend to constrain a genuine appreciation of the garden, its status, and its wider implications.

While the Little Sparta Garden Trust have done so much to conserve the garden, their name does not yet embrace the full name of the garden and home which they hold in trust. The history of the garden that they authorised also has a diminishing effect, for: Little Sparta: the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay, is, in fact: Stonypath, Little Sparta: the garden of Sue Finlay and Ian Hamilton Finlay. More recently, Patrick Eyres, a trustee and longstanding expert on Ian’s work, has stated (in the special IHF issue of his New Arcadian Journal) that it was always acknowledged by Ian himself that Sue was the gardener and Ian the poet.

In a way, I think Patrick’s reassessment – while it is welcome, and will I hope be adopted by the Garden Trust – is perhaps too schematic. I have a short poem that might helpfully summarise their roles:

He made the paths

She planted the flowers

The deeper point here is that, as anyone who knew Sue and Ian is aware, the garden was a collaborative process. While historians have been happy to credit the craftspeople, photographers and illustrators who Ian worked with, they seem less willing to gift Sue the same recognition.

Ian always worked in collaboration with a woman – his ‘first listener’, as it were – from Jessie McGuffie on Wild Hawthorn Press, for a couple of years in the early 1960s, to Pia Simig, who collaborated on all Ian’s later exhibitions and public projects. (Their roles were clearly acknowledged in Wood Notes Wild, which I edited in 1996). Aside from the normal conventions of historical accuracy, what is crucial here is that a conservative – or object based – view of the garden is in danger of becoming dominant; rather than a description of the historical process by which the garden was made. This seems to have happened in a rather similar way to the ‘domain name’, Little Sparta, supplanting it’s partner, Stonypath.

Ian was always at pains to explain that his poem-objects consisted of the object and its setting – the flowers Sue planted, and indeed the shadows themselves, or the breezes, were integral to the poem. He believed in a hierarchy, in which the poem was King; and he believed in a Republic, in which the garden was the poem’s home. Such a complex Heraclitean thought defines his genius – and it requires to be thought through by us, so that we can absorb the lessons that he and Sue taught, and apply them in new ways, equally innovative.

It is easy to slip into the habit of mistakenly referring to a photograph of a poem-object as a work by Ian Hamilton Finlay, ideally with a credit added for the letter carver. Why not credit the gardener too? And, in this photograph by Daniel Boudinet, there being no garden-poem by Ian, then who is the author? Rather than saying Sue alone I would always prefer we chose a generous accuracy and say it is a work by Sue and Ian.

In the authorised history of the garden, Sue’s two decade contribution amounts to 2 mentions in the index. In a more recent study she has been relegated to one footnote! The same famous professor of landscape who gave her that footnote, also praised Ian’s unerring ability to respond to ‘spirit of place’, in his various park and landscape projects. It is true, his gifts in this respect are remarkable; all the more so when one considers that he was never able to travel to these places.

The Archive at the Dean Gallery includes all of Sue’s polaroids, notes and suggestions, and these confirm how the work arose from a continual collaborative conversation. I stress the point, because the portrait of Ian’s aesthetic is being subject to a revisionism which tends to limit his art to a ‘style’, a persistent nostalgia for the past. This loses sight of the works radical nature. These accounts, which are motivated by devotion to the work, also fail to really grasp the true status of the garden, as a gift. This day-to-day generosity of welcoming people was Sue and Ian’s gift.

Ian collaborated throughout his life, out of a personal need – the same need that saw him able to make toys, but not construct ‘artworks’. He made of his own need, a gift – a gift to see the potential in others. Potential was his greatest genius – the potential of a piece of balsa wood, the potential of Stonypath, the potential of a resonant word, to touch or send a chill.

Ian created the garden out of personal need, to make a home that was also a world. He made of that need a gift, inviting anyone to enter the world that he and Sue had created together. In personal terms, he collaborated as a way to turn the separateness that exists between individuals into forms of sharing and common understanding. The work was a gift that was born in the gap between himself and his collaborator. Here we find that same combination, of hierarchy – for the works must all meet his approval – and Republican equality – for he worked together with so many people, with such diverse skills. Ian preserved this fascinating collaborative dynamic, in a practical way, by working mostly by letter, sending instructions at a distance – from his island, as it were. He preferred to not be there when the work was shaped, or an exhibition was opened. His method of working, his process, reconciled exile and home, by allowing the boat of his ideas to voyage between himself and other people. It was a wise form of deferral; a protection of himself and others; and a way to show faith for what he called the muses – for they exist in that gap, between two people. Once again, we see why Jessie, Sue and Pia were each, in turn, so crucial.

So, in my view, Ian understood himself much better than some over-protective historians have allowed. I am unsure why they have not made reference to his letters, as they are such an illumination of his thought; but I am sure that someday someone will delight us with a portrait that shows how Ian made works of art, and how he found a way to work that reconciled the tensions within his own psyche.

Wood Wind Story; The Rowan is leaving to write: These poem-objects or garden-poems have the solidity of stone: they are objects cast to last through time. And yet the poem always goes beyond this objecthood, goes on to embrace the flowers around it that Sue planted, and to embrace the sounds of the woodland, the shadows dancing in the wind. The garden-poem is not an object, it is a process.

We can, I think, define these tendencies, these tensions, these personal and universal truths, as: The Stonypathian and The Little Spartan.

The Little Spartan is hierarchical, political, historical, Tragic

The Little Spartan is stone and cast bronze

The Little Spartan is the idea, the ideal and the Wars of Exile

The Stonypathian is democratic, fond, domestic, daily

The Stonypathian is fleeting and transitory, shadow and birdsong

The Stonypathian is home, teapots and toys

For Ian opposites are always fundamentally connected to one another: so it is with The Stonypathian and the Little Spartan. The crucial distinguishing characteristic between these two names lies in Ian’s relation to time. For many years Stonypath gifted Ian a secure home – in a way he had not had since, briefly, when he lived on Rousay. Sue gave him the support and permission to live this life that he needed, on his own terms, as an exile, poet-gardener and toy-maker.

The result was the garden, Stonypath, a gift they always shared with the world. Gradually though, as Ian entered into the cultural tradition of the landscape garden, as his passion for the ideal, for Poussin and Claude, for the classical world, deepened, so the dark shades of exile entered our home. To attempt an encapsulation:

As the idea became the garden,

The garden became the ideal

As the idealised landscape garden became History,

History became Conflict

and conflict begets Tragedy.

Stonypath can be Idyllic; Little Sparta always tends to the Tragic. The historical themes of conflict that seeped into this Edenic garden retreat – from the early 1970s on – began as an ideological balancing act, as if to say, yes, this my a peaceful island, but it is also defended. But, a new era of crisis began, and it seems as if he imaginatively fell through these historical ideas – as if they were a trapdoor in time (think Harry Potter) – and they came to embody a new fiercer form of exile, a militant exile.

His relationship with time was always unusual, as he admitted – the past was ALIVE for him in an extraordinary way – and this explains the symbolical and emotional transformation, from Rousay to Stonypath to Little Sparta.

A work such as curlew / curfew foreshadows this. In his incredible genius for inhabiting language, he exchanges one letter for another, and from l to f we slip, from home to exile – as the birdsong becomes a symbolic call of exile, alarm, tolling the threat of night.

Concealed within this poem I believe there lies his memory of the Clydebank Blitz – and the rain of bombs he sheltered from, under a kitchen table. He spoke of inspiration as being like a lightning flash, or two searchlights crossing – always that aliveness and that sense of opposition. He also turned words to stone, as if freezing time, as if stilling the falling bombs – actual firing rockets or bullets are rare in his work.

From this mindscape of crisis we may attempt many new and meaningful interpretations of the work – interpretations that are alive to its charge; analysis that do not rationalise the aircraft carriers, or the guillotines, as merely emblems, but have the courage to admit that the charge they carry is real, live, and dangerous – a reliving of that childhood blitz.

Ian’s art was concerned with the irreconcilable nature of our lives; it actualises these, demands that we witness them; it challenges us to reconcile them, in a typically Scottish accusatory way. It does not ask that we shirk from the work, or accept it without question. It may even offer us the gift of healing the things Ian was not able to.

Let us now look upon the Wars of Little Sparta as an enactment of a mythic quarrel between exile and home, between the artist and society; between Ian and his own time. Let us marvel at the wit and perceptiveness of the Garden Temple as a converted stable; but let us also realise that when Ian created that battle scenario he was placing his own person at great risk – for what could be more terrifying than for an agoraphobic to face the possibility of being taken away from his home to a police cell. None of the histories of the Battle of Little Sparta recall that on that day he ran away – to Anston, where all good Stonypathians always ran away – and that Sue had to go and fetch him back, unable to face the conflict on her own. Seeing this slide of Sue always touches me, as I can recognise how ill she was then – had been already for years. In that decade of battles the family suffered terribly, her most of all. It was she who had to summon the courage to go on St Just Vigilante Raids, demonstrations, meet lawyers, attend court cases; and it was she who was exhausted by their consequences.

It was Ian who quarrelled with his own time. For the first time I have been able to grasp just how closely the visit of the assessment office who rated the gallery-Garden Temple at Stonypath as a commercial gallery was a reincarnation, for Ian, of the authority figure of the OHMS officer on Rousay. He could not bear his home or his life to be awarded a status that seem to lack authenticity, or that reduced his art to a commercial value. Many of his principles were and still are right – especially that determination to assert a place for art separate from commerce, and the demand that he and Sue made that their artwork should be recognised to have the status of a gift. But wars are more irrational that rational. Wars are bloody, sectarian and exhausting. In every war there are real casualties. The survivors are liable to be touchy when other historians do not reflect on the personal cost that was paid. It redoubles the injustice that has been shown to Sue.

Ian’s work did provoke an animus – it was intended to. This has to be admitted. It was a provocation, though he never foresaw the consequences of that lightning flash. If one reads the texts, letters and poem fragments of those years, one sees the bombs that haunted him, the mythic irrational forces of Apollo, let loose. It is there, for example, in Sandy Stoddart’s hysterical St Just diatribe, The Aphrodite of the Terror – and, in Sandy, we see another artist with an eerie relationship to time. It is vivid in Ian’s plaster heads of guillotined opponents. And it was etched in Waldemar Januscak’s scrawled cartoon of Ian doing a fascist salute with the message ‘Ha ha, congratulations on losing the Bicenteniary Commission Finlay’. Wars are never simply an act of strategic wit.

This is the hardest gift and the truest gift: that Ian’s work, and his life, spans all of this range of feeling that I have sketched today, and more – from the graceful beauty of a lemon-shaped boat to the ice-cold edge of a guillotine. Not only his thought, but his being, was both charming and frighteningly Heraclitean.

In closing, I hope it is clear that I have not wished to supplant the Little Spartan with the Stonypathian, but simply to rebalance them and bring them fully alive in relation to one another – as Ian’s sentences do. I have not intended to relegate Ian’s work to so many exhibits that are simply indicative of a biography, a life. And, perhaps most important of all, let us all be clear that it can never diminish Ian’s art, to remind people of the crucial nature of Sue’s role. The gift that I have hoped to share is a balanced truthful view of his life and his work. If I argue for the importance of the domestic pensees it is because they epitomise the Stonypathian – the gentle humour that was the thing his friends enjoyed. It was this humour, and also their friendship with Sue, which allowed them to trust and support Ian, when the ferocity of his work and the power-laden nature of his ideas, were daunting. If I have been truthful about his illness it is because there is no shame in it. Home and exile are the emotional keys to his work, not Neo-classicism and cultural nostalgia.

The implications of Ian and Sue’s garden is not simply that he was a genius who created a unique place. His intention was to inspire, by example. When he said that Garden Centres are the Jacobin Clubs of the coming revolution, he meant that we can all be gardeners, and in transforming the world into our home, we are Revolutionary. Sue was the gardener; they achieved that transformation together; and her importance is a matter of accuracy, but more than that, it is she who represents the part we can all do, the democratic act of gardening. Ian and Sue’s achievement does not reside only in Stonypath, Little Sparta. It resides in the status that they fought for: the status of the gift. Art can be something that belongs in a place, and of a place – and that place can belong to us all.

Without Ian and Sue, there is an inevitable exile from the founding spirit of the garden. It cannot be helped. The Trust has been a valuable bridge from the past to the future, maintaining the object of the garden with care. I hope that someday Stonypath, Little Sparta will become, in the fullest sense, the property of the nation. That is what the family wishes. I hope that bodies like the National Galleries of Scotland and the Botanical Gardens will take the garden on, with the Trust’s full support.

This could create a link between the Ian Hamilton Finlay Archive and the Sue Finlay Archive, in the Dean, and Stonypath – one that is all the more appropriate, as Ian’s IDYLLS, installed in the allotments at The Dean, is such an important artwork, as it is the only work of his in the British Isles which approaches the garden – being a patch of land that is actually gardened. I have always loved the status of the allotments, a private-public anomaly within the grounds of the National Galleries; a Stonypathian idyll alongside the Little Spartan grandeur of the gallery. Ian delighted in that to.

Of course, the National collections can never be the same thing, in terms of status, as the old garden – but it would be a welcome statement of a different kind, one that would demonstrate a wider acceptance of the value of the gift, which Ian and Sue enshrined during their lives together. The availability of some of the key documents relating to the garden may also encourage future historians to attempt new generous histories of the garden.

And so, I have set my little dream boat to sail – a boat of my very own – negotiating the islands of the past and future, taking between home and exile, sewing a sail which you are all welcome to help me raise.

Alec Finlay

18 May 2010

1 comment:

  1. Peter - thanks for posting this, it is fascinating.