PRINT January 1986


Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer

Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer (Edinburgh: Reaktion Books, 12 Dublin Street, Edinburgh EH1 3PP, 1985), 248 pages, over 370 illustrations, 65 in full color, 19 in two-color.

Although Ian Hamilton Finlay was 60 last year, his work is only now becoming well-known outside a relatively restricted group of admirers. This book brings together for the first time, in a kind of anthology, a great number of his printed cards and booklets, published over a 25-year period. It also includes photographs, many in color, of his ongoing work, a garden with Garden Temples in Lanarkshire, Scotland (at “Little Sparta,” or Stonypath, near Dunsyre, in the Pentland Hills). The garden is an exemplary monument to “neoclassical rearmament” and has preoccupied Finlay and his wife, Susan Finlay, since 1967. It is a poet’s garden in the tradition of Alexander Pope and William Shenstone, and it has transformed a barren stretch of Scottish hillside into an extraordinary Arcadian landscape.

Et in Arcadia ego” (I [death] am also in Arcadia), the motto in paintings by Guercino and Nicolas Poussin, among others, is not forgotten, however; portents of death are (still) present in these groves—in the tortoise with “Panzer Leader” written in Gothic script on its shell, or in aircraft-carrier birdbaths. The book demonstrates how the garden continues to develop in remarkable ways: a monumental piece consisting of rough blocks of inscribed stone, reading “The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future” (a quotation from the French revolutionary Louis Antoine Leon de Saint Just), lies on the ground majestically overlooking the valley; a coal shed dedicated to Philemon and Baucis has gilded roof tiles, evidence of the moment of its transformation from humble abode to golden palace. Far from being a retreat from the world, the garden, as Finlay claims, is an attack on the social values of late-20th-century life for the furtherance of a Spartan rectitude and revolutionary virtue.

Yves Abrioux’s analysis of a whole range of issues raised by Finlay’s work is clear and penetrating. It owes a great deal to Stephen Bann’s “authorized versions,” texts authorized by Finlay, which accompany some of the works. With the aid of this book Finlay can be seen to be working in a matrix of literary and visual modes, of cultural and ideological landscapes, like Marcel Broodthaers or Vladimir Nabokov in other contexts. To leave Abrioux with the last and certainly appropriate words:

“Does Finlay’s neo-classicism produce a forced conjunction of terms (the ancient and the modern), demonstrating by the very violence of its procedures that the last threads of a tapestry going back to ancient Greece have been broken? Or does it imply structural continuity between the terms it unites? Romantic and post-Romantic irony depend on the fact that such questions cannot be finally settled.”

Mark Francis