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Eighteen years after his first exhibition at our gallery and five years after his death, we pay tribute to Ian Hamilton Finlay. An artist, poet and visionary philosopher, he started with concrete poetry and developed his own method, full of quotations, and gave concrete form to phrases and literary compositions by creating cards, books, prints, engravings on stone or wood, and installations.

His main work was undoubtedly his garden Little Sparta at Stonypath, which contains about 270 works of art. He started building it in 1966 when he moved with his family to a desolate, barren part of the foothills of the Scottish Pentlands, renaming the area Little Sparta (a dig at Edinburgh, dubbed the Athens of the North) and transforming it into what is now one of the most famous gardens in Great Britain.

Selected from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s estate, the works are associated with well-known themes such as the interplay between nature and culture, pastoral imagery, the sea, the French Revolution, and classicism and neo-classicism.

His beloved nature features in such works as Figleaf, a 1992 plaster cast with fig leaves in relief; Arbor Felice–Arbor Philhellene and The Birch Tree Recalls You O Philhellenes, ceramic tree-plaques reminiscent of classical philosophy. Man a Passerby is a milestone that reflects on man’s condition and his transitory being. On the walls are four Mean Terms. Finlay defined a mean term as “a mathematical concept meaning a term which stands mid-way between two others”. He uses the concept metaphorically, as in his work Sackcloth: “Sackcloth was worn by the Saints and Martyrs and is a sort of emblem of penitence, or of aspiration, of the earthly towards the heavenly”.

Allusions to sailing and the sea can be found in Drift (Mist) Net, a carved wooden bench; in  Sails, four chairs evoking the Galway Hooker, the traditional fishing boat used off the Irish coast with a specially-shaped ensign; and in Hirondelle / PL192378/VENT D’SU/CN273998, a slate slab created in 1996 depicting boat names and their registration numbers.

Lastly, L’Idylle des Cerises is a work comprising four lead fruit-baskets based on Jean­-Jacques Rousseau’s 4th Book of the Confessions: “I climbed into a cherry tree, and threw bunches of cherries down to the girls, who then returned the cherry-stones through the branches. Seeing one of the girls holding out her apron and tilting her head, I took such good aim that I dropped a bunch into her bosom. ‘Why are my lips not cherries?’ I thought. ‘How gladly would I throw them there too!’”