Ian Hamilton Finlay: Remembering a Radical Traditionalist Warrior

By Christopher McIntosh

At a time when much of the world seems to be under “the shadow of a dark wing,” as C. S. Lewis wrote in his prescient novel That Hideous Strength, and when it often feels as though we are living in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I find myself increasingly reaching out to those, past and present, who uphold the vision or the memory of a saner, nobler, more wholesome, more human and more authentic world. One such person who stands out in my mind is the Scottish poet, the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, who was my friend for 30 years and who had a profound influence on me, above all through his conviction that tradition, far from being a shackle that weighs one down, is an accumulation of lessons from the past that guide and inspire one in the present.

Ian is known, among other things, for the remarkable garden that he and his then wife Sue created in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. When I first heard of him back in the 1960s he was a prominent member of the avant-garde literary scene in Scotland, a pioneer of concrete poetry and the creator of a magazine with the curious title of Poor Old Tired Horse. In those days he seemed like a sort of Scottish beatnik, but over time he became increasingly a champion of what he called the classical tradition, by which he meant the standards, principles and aesthetic and moral values that have been handed down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans and that form the foundation stone of western civilization. His life and his art became part of a war in defence of that heritage and against what he called the “secular terror,” that is to say those who scorn tradition, beauty and the sacred and deny the existence of the gods. Significantly, the property encompassing his home and garden, initially called Stonypath and later Little Sparta, was dedicated to Apollo and featured a number of gods from the classical pantheon.

If Ian were alive today he would be horrified at the current state of the world and how ubiquitous the secular terror has become. Consequently I feel sure he would be fully in support of Hieros and its aims. With this in mind I am presenting the following edited and condensed extracts from my work Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Memoir (Vanadis Texts, 2014. Full version with footnotes available via Amazon). They include material, such as transcripts of tape-recorded conversations, included in the doctoral thesis on Ian’s work, written by my then wife Katherine Kurs for the Royal College of Art in London and entitled Ground of Meaning, in which she examined “the sacred and rhetorical dimensions of Stonypath-Little Sparta”.

Sage of the Pentland Hills

Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1925. His father, Jim Finlay, was a merchant skipper who made (and later lost) a fortune transporting bootleg rum into the United States during prohibition. He also hired out his schooner for pearl fishing. He and his wife Annie brought up Ian and his sister Anne for the first few years on Nassau. Ian’s earliest childhood memory was of sitting on the deck of his father’s schooner, and all his life he remained fascinated by boats and ships, which figure repeatedly in his work. At the age of about seven he was sent to a boarding school in Scotland, while his father embarked on an orange-growing venture in Florida. When the orange plantation failed the family returned to Glasgow where they lived in straitened circumstances. Ian left school at the age of 14 and was promptly evacuated to the country at the start of the Second World War.

In 1942 at the age of 17 he was called up for the army and spent three and a half years in the Royal Army Service Corps, rising to the rank of sergeant and serving part of the time in Germany. After the war he returned to Glasgow and married the artist Marion Fletcher. Best man at the wedding was Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name for Christopher Murray Grieve), who was already considered Scotland’s leading poet. Soon the couple moved to Perthshire, where Ian began to paint. Tragically for posterity, he destroyed all his paintings around the end of the 1950s and turned to writing short stories, although he kept his painter’s eye, which is everywhere evident at Little Sparta. During the Perthshire phase he began to suffer from the agoraphobia that was to plague him repeatedly. Around the same time his marriage to Marion began to fall apart. Over the next few years he led a wandering life, which included a period in the Orkney Islands. He earned his living through various manual jobs including shepherd and road-builder. Meanwhile he was developing further as a writer. His short stories were published in the Glasgow Herald and later appeared as a collection in his first book The Sea-Bed and Other Stories (Alna Press, 1958). He then wrote a number of short plays, some of which were broadcast on the BBC. By the late 1950s he was writing a great deal of poetry, and in 1960 appeared his first collection of poems The Dancers Inherit the Party (Migrant Press, 1960), which was acclaimed in America by such well known poets as Robert Creely, Robert Duncan and Lorine Niedecker, although it was generally not well received in Scotland.

In 1961, by which time he had moved to Edinburgh, he founded, together with Jessie McGuffie, the Wild Hawthorn Press in order to publish works by contemporary poets in a high-quality format. In 1962 he founded the periodical POOR.OLD.TIRED.HORSE (often called Poth) as a forum for avant-garde writing and visual art. The periodical was something new and daring on the Scottish literary scene and helped to establish Finlay’s international reputation.

Meanwhile Finlay was treated as a dangerous upstart and maverick by much of the Scottish literary establishment, who objected to his use of the raw language of the Glasgow streets and also to his mixing of poetry and visual art. Typical was the crusade carried out against him by his former friend Hugh MacDiarmid, who issued a pamphlet against Finlay and the Poth faction. The Scotsman newspaper joined in the attack, Finlay and his friends held a demonstration in protest, and there were even some fist fights. This was only one of many battles, large and small, in which Finlay was involved almost throughout his life.

In 1964 he met Sue Macdonald Lockhart, whose family owned land on the Lanarkshire side of the Pentland Hills, and she was to play a pivotal role in his life as his wife (although not in law), right hand and close collaborator. There followed an interval in a Highland farmhouse, where he gardened and began to experiment with placing poems in the landscape, aided by Sue, who had a natural talent for gardening. In 1966, after a summer spent in Fife, the couple finally settled at Stonypath, an abandoned farm with about four acres of land, owned by Sue’s family and located on a bleak Pentland hillside. In the same year their son Alec (Eck) was born, to be followed by a daughter Ailie. Stonypath (later re-named Little Sparta) was to be Ian’s home until his death. But, more than that, it was to be his stage, his canvas, his fortress, his temenos, his Arcadia. Above all, it was to be a unique work of art in itself.

However unpromising a place it seemed to create an Arcadia, the Finlays set to work with great energy and vision. Having made the farm cottage into their home, they turned one of the out-buildings into a gallery (later to become the Garden Temple), they dug out the central yard to make a pond, and they went on to make another pond higher up the hillside as well as a small loch, or lochan, named Lochan Eck after their son. Where there had only been one old tree, they planted whole groves, made shaded paths, created flowerbeds and a sunken garden. And everywhere they placed Ian’s works of art to create, as he put it, “a series of little points that go zing”.

By the time I saw the garden in 1976, after they had been there a decade, it was already a place of profound beauty. It was conceived as a garden of “little secret places”, points of deliberate meaning, created by careful placing of a series of small artefacts, usually pieces of stone, wood or other material bearing inscriptions in specially chosen lettering or calligraphy and sometimes combined with an image so as to produce a visual and poetic impact. These “image poems” were are an art form for which Finlay became famous. Each of them was, in his words, the “presiding deity” of the corner in which it rested.

It was apparent that Ian was fascinated by military themes, including motifs from the Second World War. Often these were used in a tongue-in-cheek way, as with the domestic tortoise with the words “Panzer Leader” painted in Gothic lettering on its shell, or the signpost pointing the way to the Finlays’ washing line with the words, also in Gothic letters: “To the Siegfried Line” – a humorous reference to the Second World War song We’ll be Hanging out the Washing on the Siegfried Line. Later his use of such motifs was to bring him grotesquely unfair accusations of fascist sympathies, as was his correspondence with Hitler’s former architect Albert Speer about the garden that Speer had created while imprisoned at Spandau. Most of Finlay’s works, while conceived by himself, were executed by a variety of skilled craftsmen – sculptors, monumental masons, letter cutters, calligraphers, graphic designers, painters, engravers and so on. His argument for commissioning these craftsmen, rather than executing the works himself, was that it would be impossible for him to work in so many media to the degree of rigour that he demanded.

The Call of Tradition

In the process of co-creating the garden at Stonypath, Ian became more and more drawn to traditions inherited from antiquity. As he struggled to find the right way of placing his inscriptions and image poems in the landscape, he found himself inevitably steered to the use of classical forms – pediments, columns, Roman lettering. Visual puns became a hallmark of his work, as with his idea of placing a classical stone column base at the foot of a tree.

One classical form that suited his purposes particularly well was the emblem, in the sense of a highly compressed device, consisting of a meaningful visual image, often combined with an accompanying motto. While dating back to antiquity, the tradition of the emblem became particularly popular during the Renaissance. A well-known example is the image of a dolphin curled around an anchor to illustrate the motto “Hasten slowly” or in Latin “Festina lente”. In one of the many emblems that Ian devised, the motif of the dolphin and anchor has been replaced by a mine-sweeping tank.

It was also natural that Ian became drawn to the gods of antiquity, especially Apollo, who became the presiding deity of Little Sparta. What did the gods mean to Ian? Here is what he said in one of our taped interviews with him, which Katherine Kurs used for her doctorate:

“CM:  Can I just ask you about your view of the gods? What do the gods mean to you?

IHF:  They’re fixed things that people can’t change. Opposed to that democratic, secular, ‘flower-power’ type of thing that assumes that everything can change.

CM:  Are they actual entities to you?

KK:  Do they feel like forces or ideals?

IHF:  Forces! Forces! – Which can’t be changed – democracy takes for granted that they don’t exist.

CM:  Are they cultural ideals? Conscious or not?

IHF:  No, forces! I don’t know what you mean about forces being conscious or not – it doesn’t worry me. It’s not a question that a force would ask itself!

CM:  You’ve invoked Apollo here in the garden.

IHF:  Yes.

CM:  Do you feel that Apollo is in some sense present here? That you have actually drawn some force down?

IHF:  No, I just feel that I have brought the force to notice. It’s there and the trouble with our age is that it wishes to pretend that a whole lot of things are not there.

KK:  And ‘there’ is – ?

IHF:  In the universe

KK:  And in us?

IHF:  And in us, of course, because we are part of the universe. It’s like – If you take ‘flower-power’, it wishes to pretend that there’s no such thing as force or that there should not be force, but to me force exists in the universe. There are certain things that are a given and forces, different forces, are a part of what’s given – that’s the gods. And man has to behave as if those forces exist. But democracy in our time pretends that those forces do not exist and therefore they are excluded from culture.

KK:  Like the negative part of nature?

IHF:  That’s a good example.

KK:  The violence in nature?

IHF:  The destructive aspect of nature is not allowed to exist and people get very annoyed with you if you refer to it … If you contradict that viewpoint, they get absolutely furious with you!”

So the question arises: was Ian a pagan? This came up in another of our interviews:

KK:  Clearly the pre-Socratics, the Graeco-Roman is very, very important to you because they have the quality of clarity, incisiveness.

IHF:  Well, the Hellenic thing has that, doesn’t it? When you encounter the Hellenic thing, the essence of it is this kind of purity, clarity, simplicity or luminosity. Like a pure line, unencumbered, so fresh that it’s impossible not to feel that’s religious or sacred. That’s the quality that’s in it.

KK:  What about the Christian mystics? Do they interest you?

IHF:  No, well they do in a sort of way, but I don’t like things that leave out – I like things that go through the world to get to things … I like things where there is water and leaves and quite sensual.

CM:  You’re a sort of pagan then –

IHF:  Well, not really, I don’t think. Well, if you like! I don’t mind! I never really think of it in that way. I don’t think of the purity as being pagan or non-pagan.”

At any rate, Ian clearly had his own kind of religiosity and sense of the sacred, whether one calls it pagan or not. He often spoke disparagingly of the secularity of modern culture and of what he called the “secular terror”.

This already comes across in a letter he wrote to me on 19 October 1977 following an exhibition of his work at the Serpentine Gallery in London, which had been crudely attacked in the Spectator:

“For some reason (I hope not awful?) I always seem to be a bone of contention – for or against. We have had some very nice letters about the exhibition – surprisingly warm and nice; but in my heart, after years of isolation (I do not mean geographically) and controversy, what I really want is some kind of circle within which certain things were taken for granted, so that one could consider nuances instead of basic principles. I do not suppose I will ever find such a circle, but it would be inspiring. It certainly seems to me that one great difficulty in the contemporary world is, that everything is approached on a secular level, and there is no place for anything else. Whereas it seems to me that a great deal which interests me is only to be comprehended in some other way. And this is true even of emblems and imprese; there are what one might term ‘secular’ emblems, but there are emblems in which the use of language is (in some sense at least) magical; I readily admit that I have never been interested in what the world calls ‘magic’ but I begin to feel that certain modes of using language do involve magic of some sort.”

What did tradition mean to Ian? Here is how he spoke in another of our interviews about tradition in relation to his own creative process:

“I sort of experience everything from, I suppose, what people call grandly intuition, but from the inside, a kind of dawning intuition, and my appreciation of tradition is as that which elucidates my intuitions … There’s a dawning of what one would call half-feeling, half-idea and the sort of intellectual thing is to interpret it, to understand it. And to begin with I don’t usually understand it in any kind of didactic sense at all … Then gradually, as I start to work at a thought, it becomes more didactic or intellectual or whatever and it’s at those stages where I find tradition so helpful. You find the thing has already been elucidated … That is why I find it so odd that people pose their own individuality against tradition whereas I find that tradition is a perfect fit. And because I experience it in that way, I don’t experience it [tradition] the way so many people seem to, which is as something other than myself or outside myself … In the first place, most obviously people understand tradition as something that belongs to the past whereas I don’t experience it as belonging to the past in that sense at all. When people talk about the past, they mean something that’s across the river, over a gulf, or somewhere outside of them, or separate, which can only be appreciated academically. But that is not my experience of tradition …”

Ian was no armchair traditionalist but one who was prepared to fight tenaciously in defence of traditional values. One of his early battles concerned his collection of poems The Dancers Inherit the Party, the first edition of which was published by the Migrant Press in 1960, followed by a second edition in 1962. The book was then re-published in 1969 by Fulcrum Press in a third edition, which was wrongly described as the first. Many authors would have shrugged this off as a minor error, but to Finlay it was a serious falsification that needed to be rectified. He reacted by demanding that the Fulcrum edition be withdrawn. There ensued a battle lasting several years and involving solicitors, members of parliament, librarians, journalists, arts councils and the literary department of Sotheby’s. Eventually there was a court decision against Fulcrum, who were unable to meet the costs and collapsed as a consequence. Ian alluded to this affair in a letter to me of 4 December 1979, complaining that the National Library of Scotland had told him that “nowadays people don’t bother about accurate descriptions of first editions … that is, nowadays ‘sophisticated’ … people don’t bother about the law, and (what is more) if you try to bother – this is what follows, you see – if you try to bother then we will remove words from sentences, describe you as insane, threaten Trading Standards Officials … or etc., etc. This toffee-nosed version of the Kray Gang runs British ‘cultural’ life.”

More and more Ian came to see himself at odds with the cultural establishment, as he was with the whole ethos of modernity. Here is what he wrote to me on this subject in a letter of 6 June 1978:

“I do feel this [despondency], but am convinced it’s a sensible response to the age – or, if you like, I belong to the old world, where people had feelings – and entirely agree with Rousseau that men without passions will never make good reasonable citizens; I feel the world is being taken over by a new Race of men, not Supermen but Submen … Certainly one should consent to be unhappy – that is, to live through things; the modern idea is always to accommodate oneself to what is, instead of grasping that what is may well be an aberration of the most awful sort.

In short, there are no aristocrats any longer …”

By the same token, Ian had little time for the icons of modern art. Barbara Hepworth he called “The Lady of the Unleavened Lump” (letter of 27 September 1979). And of Joseph Beuys he wrote on 3 July 1982: “I see that Joseph Beuys, the German avant-garde artist, has blatantly cribbed my stone column base idea, and turned it into stone steles for 7000 trees, in Kassel – the reduction of a serious idea, to idiocy, by a famous clown, as usual.”

As I recall, it was around 1978 that he began to be fascinated by the French Revolution, which might seem paradoxical. He was, after all, a traditionalist, but he saw in the Revolution a kind of radical traditionalism and a purity of ideals which he found lacking in his own time. He liked the way that the Revolutionaries adopted a neo-classical aesthetic, as exemplified by the painter Jacques-Louis David with his images of stern Romans in togas, metaphorically emphasising the stern ideals of the Revolution. In a very skilful way, Finlay re-cycled the rhetoric and iconography of the Revolution, incorporating it into his own work and using it in his various battles. In typical defiance of received opinions, his heroes were not Danton and Desmoulins but rather Maximilien Robespierre and Antoine de Saint-Just, who have gone down in history as the leaders of the Terror. The latter became a particular icon for Finlay, who symbolically identified him with Apollo, most memorably in the gilt head of Apollo / Saint-Just that is placed in a grove near the Upper Pond at Little Sparta, its forehead inscribed with the words “APOLLON TERRORISTE”. He also formed a group of supporters called the Saint-Just Vigilantes, of which I was a member. The Vigilantes were to play a major part in Finlay’s various battles.

The Battle of Little Sparta

In keeping with Ian’s aphorism that “certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks” he came to conceive of Little Sparta as a kind of fortress with its guns pointed at the “secular terror”, which it most dramatically became during an episode in 1983 that has gone down in history as the Battle of Little Sparta.

What led to the battle was a long-running dispute between the Finlays and the Strathclyde Regional Council concerning the Council’s demand for payment of local taxes (rates as they were then called) on the Temple to Apollo, which the Council insisted was merely an art gallery.

Previously the gallery had for some time been exempt from rates on a discretionary basis, as it enjoyed the recognition and financial support of the Scottish Arts Council (SAC). In 1978, however, a quarrel arose with the SAC when Finlay, in protest against certain actions of SAC officials, withdrew his Serpentine travelling exhibition just before its opening at the SAC gallery in Edinburgh. In the ensuing fray, the SAC cancelled its grant to the gallery, which Strathclyde Regional Council then used as a reason to withdraw the discretionary rates relief. Finlay countered in 1982 by transforming the gallery into a Garden Temple dedicated to Apollo and claiming mandatory rates relief on the grounds that the Temple was a religious building. Corinthian columns were painted on the facade along with an incised inscription in beautiful gold lettering that said: “TO APOLLO   HIS MVSIC   HIS MISSILES   HIS MVSES.”

For Finlay this was no longer just a dispute about a rates bill but a head-on clash of world-views. Finlay, on one side, was defending a neo-classical tradition, well understood by the garden builders of earlier centuries, in which garden temples to Apollo or other gods had an accepted place. On the other side were the Strathclyde Regional Council, the SAC and, by association, the whole modern cultural establishment, in whose world-view there was no room for garden temples, for the gods or for sacred places.

One of the groups that showed solidarity with Finlay was the New Arcadians, founded by Patrick Eyres, Ian Gardner and Grahame Jones, an initiative to carry out research and publish material related to the culture of landscape gardening.  Now called the New Arcadian Press, it produces the quarterly New Arcadian Journal and other publications. At the time of the conflict with Strathclyde Region, the New Arcadians published a series of Despatches from the Little Spartan War. One of these succinctly sums up the deeper issues at the heart of the dispute:

“It [the SAC] refuses to advise Strathclyde of the temple’s cultural status. Consequently The War illuminates a general predicament: that secular culture erodes comprehension of the spiritual.

“Rating of the disputed building as a garden temple is claimed because it is a contemporary expression of the classical garden – a tradition emanating from Republican Rome and regenerated in Renaissance Italy and Augustan Britain – whose planting and temples manifest the sacred grove as a spiritually inspirational landscape. Indeed the garden in Republican Rome consciously evolved as a sacred landscape wherein philosophy, poetry and the arts were integral religious activities. The classical temple itself is the architectural embodiment of the sacred grove whose tree trunks became transformed into the columns of the temple. At Little Sparta, the sacred landscape is denoted by the interplay of column bases with living trees, by the intermingling of classical columns and trees, by capitals and columns burgeoning as planters, and by the presence of the garden temple … the temple offers sacred ground to the Saint-Just Vigilantes who constitute the religious body which … experiences the temple as a place of spiritual inspiration.”

In responding to Strathclyde’s repeated demands for payment, Finlay adopted a combative tone. Here is what he wrote to the Region on 3 May 1980:

“I acknowledge receipt of your Rates demand in respect of our ‘art gallery’.

“You withdrew discretionary (cultural) rates relief on the grounds that we have no arts council grant. You refused to discuss, or to visit us. By refusing discussion you made it impossible for us to use the Appeal process in a rational way, and when we declined to take part in a pseudo-appeal, you simply invented an Appeal which never took place. That we ‘lost’ this did not come as a surprise.

“We have no ‘art gallery’ in the sense that you mean. You were clearly advised of this in the communications.

“I have torn your Rates demand into several pieces and am returning them to you. You have shown yourselves unable to take part in rational discourse: perhaps you will understand the sign.

“Two further fingers to you and slave province.”

The following year a pressure group called the Friends of Stonypath was formed in order to attempt mediation with the Region and raise money to meet their rates demand. When mediation broke down the group became more militant and Finlay re-named it the Saint-Vigilantes after his French Revolutionary hero. One of their tactics was to carry out raids, orchestrated by Finlay. As the New Arcadians’ Journal reported:

“The previous night a Saint-Just Vigilante commando had struck the cultural buildings of central Edinburgh, fly-posting them with Latin posters whose elegant neo-classical lettering not only condemned the SAC but also upstaged the establishment’s fashionable enthusiasm for New York’s Graffiti Art! This eloquent ‘Graffiti’ successfully tarred the cultural establishment … despite the arrest of two prominent Vigilantes during their assault on the National Monument and loss of half the poster stock to the police.”

Things came to a head in early 1983 when the Region announced that it would hold a warrant sale at Stonypath-Little Sparta. This meant seizing works of art from the Temple in order to sell them and obtain the outstanding rates. The warrant sale was set for noon on 4 February. Ten days before that date the Finlays had a surprising visit from the SAC’s Director and Art Director, who now offered to support the case for mandatory rates relief and to mediate with the Region. In the event, however, this offer came to nothing, and the date for the warrant sale remained.

In preparation for the “High Noon” showdown, Ian had alerted the Saint-Just Vigilantes and the media. Like a skilful stage or film director, he had devised a whole scenario in which the Region were to play a part that they had not anticipated. I took part in the battle and afterwards recorded it in my diary as follows:

“Last week I got an appeal from Ian Hamilton Finlay to go up and give him moral support on Friday, February 4, when the Strathclyde Region authorities had said they were going to send a Sherriff Officer to conduct a warrant sale and sell three of Ian’s dryads [statuettes of wood nymphs in military camouflage] to pay the ₤530 which they claim he owes them for rates. Ian has formed a group called the Saint-Just Vigilantes made up of friends and supporters. The badge bears Saint-Just’s words ‘Too many laws, too few examples’. Vigilantes from all over the country answered his appeal for support.

“I travelled up by bus on Thursday – a beautiful journey for the last stretch through the Lanarkshire hills in the twilight, passing Dolphinton and the turn to Dunsyre. I stayed at Blacket Place [my parents’ home] and next day got up early and drove out to Dunsyre to find Little Sparta looking like a military camp: a checkpoint (named Checkpoint Sandy after the Sheriff Officer, Sandy Walker) with a red-and-white pole; an imitation Panzer tank made by Nicholas Sloan [an engraver in stone who frequently worked with Ian] with the gun poking out from some foliage used as camouflage; a Red Cross post (also set up by Nicholas) with a tent, RC flag and Morris Minor station wagon (also Nicholas’s) with a red cross on the side. Sue was riding around on a white mare supervising operations, and a number of Vigilantes were already there. One of them came out bringing me a mug hot tea. Ian came out and greeted me. Dressed in his old leather, fur-lined jacket, he looked like a fighter pilot. A few reporters were also milling about. It was a bitterly cold day, so the favourite spot was the small kitchen where the kettle was constantly on the boil for tea and coffee.

“Towards 12 noon, when the Sheriff Officer was due to arrive, Ian took refuge in his ‘HQ’ which he had set up in the hayloft of his barn. There was a table covered with a green baize cloth and on it an old typewriter, a pair of binoculars, a bottle of sherry and a thermos flask of tea. Beside the table was a wooden chair. Through a hole in the wall of the barn we could see the temple and beyond it the approach to the house.”

Looking back, I recall that, while outside the Vigilantes kept an eager watch for the arrival of the Sheriff Officer, Ian and I philosophised about culture, literature and civilisation. Years later Sue told me that he often said how much those moments had meant to him and how reassuring it had been to have me there. The diary entry goes on:

“Suddenly there was a ringing on the bell from the sentry on the roof, and a few minutes later the Sheriff Officer came up the hill towards the house, surrounded by a huge posse of press and TV men. He marched up to the door of the temple, knocked a few times and then tried the door. He was a tall man of about mid 30s, rugged looking, with longish dark hair and a scar beside his left eye. He was dressed in a brown sheepskin coat. After being interrogated by the reporters and looking around the temple for some means of entry, he went away to fetch the police, only to find that the way had been blocked by a tractor, which a neighbouring farmer had parked on a bridge that was part of the driveway. The farmer pretended to have had a puncture, and the tractor stood there with one wheel missing which the farmer had rolled down the hill. The Sheriff Officer set off on foot down the hill but was eventually given a lift by one of the press men to a place where he could phone for the police.

“Ian then decided to ‘take to the hills’ behind the house. Sue and I accompanied him. He was nervous, but half enjoying the tension. ‘I expect they’ll come after me with helicopters,’ he said, quite seriously. Then, added more jokingly: ‘It’ll be like a Richard Hannay scene.’

“At first it was planned that I should go with him to the neighbouring farm, but then he decided to go back to the HQ. So we took up position again, in time to see the Sheriff Officer return, this time with two burly policemen, one a sergeant. Having tried the door again he appealed through an intermediary to Ian to be allowed to go in and confirm that the dryads were not there after which he would go away. Ian refused, so he forced his way in through a back window. Inside, he removed his shoes and put on a pair of the slippers that visitors are requested to wear when in the temple. He then searched the temple, found the dryads were not there, and came out again, cutting his hand on some barbed wire.

“After this he walked into the HQ where Ian was. I was outside by this time. A moment or two later Ian and two Vigilantes emerged with their hands up, and immediately Ian was surrounded by the press. Finally the S.O. was invited into the house to wash his cut hand, and Sue gave him a sticking plaster. His secretary, a petite, dark-haired girl with glasses, had been sheltering all this time in the kitchen. By now the tractor had been removed, so the S.O. could leave. He said all he could was to report back to the Region. The police also left. Thus ended the Battle of Little Sparta.”

The Wars Continue

The battle was reported the same evening on television and next day in the local and national press. The report in the Guardian of 5 February 1983 by Martin Walker is worth quoting as it contains a description of the Garden Temple:

“In the middle of Mr Finlay’s garden stands a huge old cow byre, once derelict, that Strathclyde Regional Council insists is a commercial art gallery and they charge him ₤530 a year rates upon it. Or rather, they find themselves sucked into theatrical happenings when they try to arrange forced sales of his confiscated work to get the money he adamantly refuses to pay, even if he had the cash.

“The garden temple comprises three rooms, each evoking a different mood. First comes a light and airy exhibition of his work; then a much darker, kind of indoor Sacred Grove, with a vast window framing an intimate glimpse of his garden, and, finally, a black and pagan temple lit only by candles. It is a disturbing testimony to Finlay’s conviction that modern man has become too secular, and that the classical era offers a challenging and aesthetic way back to a sense of the spiritual that he is convinced we need.”

I find it significant that the article uses the word “pagan” to describe the third and innermost room of the building.

Despite the victory for the Finlays and the Vigilantes on 4 February, the war was by no means over. A few weeks later, on 15 March 1983, the Region carried out a surprise repeat action, this time on Budget Day, when the media were preoccupied with the new Budget. There were no reporters and no Vigilantes present. The Sheriff Officer and an associate entered the temple and removed a number of works of art, valued at between ₤5,000 and ₤6,000 – far exceeding the outstanding rates which the Region now put at ₤1,153. These works were then handed over to the Glasgow branch of the auctioneer firm Christie’s for sale. In protest against the raid, Ian closed Little Sparta to visitors for a year.

Ostensibly this was a victory for the Region, but the victory soon backfired badly. First of all, in some cases the officers had made off with incomplete works by taking only part of a work that had more than one piece. In other cases they had taken the work without the documentation belonging to it. Worst of all, it soon transpired that many of the works were not owned by Finlay but by various collectors who had lent them back to Finlay for display. These included the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The Region then moved the works from Christie’s to a secret bank vault and announced that they would proceed to auction them unless proof of ownership were provided. However, they held back from doing so, clearly because they had cold feet about selling stolen goods. The works belonging to the Wadsworth Atheneum were finally returned to them as a result of pressure from the US State Department. What happened to the other works in the end I do not know.

There now existed an impasse, with the Region unable to sell the seized works and continuing to demand payment of the rates. The resulting war dragged on for years with Ian sending out a continual flood of letters to the Region, the press, people in the arts world, the Secretary of State for Scotland, his Member of Parliament and other quarters. In addition, he and the Vigilantes continued to carry out various provocative actions, often with a good dose of Ian’s mischievous humour. A mock newspaper was issued called the The Strathclyde Times. One article was headed “Region to receive Soviet Rockets” and reported: “A spokesman for Strathclyde Region’s Strategic Issues Department last night confirmed that the Region expects to receive a number of Soviet rockets within the next few weeks ‘to step up our defences against Little Sparta.’” Another article reported: “Earlier today UN Paratroops made a mass landing in the Pentland Hills, preparatory to advancing into Strathclyde Region – it is reported from New York … A Pentlands shepherd, Mr McDivot (89), claims to have seen some of the Paratroops landing. ‘They gied my ewes a right fright,’ he said. But the rumour that they are equipped with special tartan camouflage smocks is ‘just not true’.”

By 1988 the situation had still not been resolved, and the region seized the Finlays’ bank account without any warning or prior discussion – later they had to return the money, as the account was not in the Finlays’ name but that of the Wild Hawthorn Press. In April of that year Finlay’s supporters staged one of their most effective events, namely a public symposium at the University of Edinburgh, entitled “The Garden Temple, Little Sparta and the Secularisation of Culture”, organised by the Talbot Rice Gallery, the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Speakers included Stephen Bann, the architect Charles Jencks and the French critic Yves Abrioux. Katherine and I were asked by Ian to write a Platonic dialogue for the symposium, which we duly did. We were unable to attend ourselves, as we were abroad at the time, but the piece was read out by a proxy. The dialogue was between Apollo and a member of the Saint-Just Vigilantes (see Appendix for the complete text).

Astonishingly, a representative of Strathclyde Region attended the symposium but was unable to respond when asked why the Region still held the works seized from the Temple. However, the relentless campaign by Finlay and the Vigilantes had finally caused the Region to rethink their position, and several months after the symposium the Finlays were offered 100 per cent discretionary rates relief. This they turned down on the grounds that they were entitled to mandatory exemption and that anything less would fail to recognise the temple as a religious building. While there was still no agreement, it was at least a kind of cease-fire.

Meanwhile, despite the wear and tear of the Little Spartan War, Ian continued to create works of art, to carry out commissions and to be represented in exhibitions in various places including Edinburgh, London, Basel, Kassel and Paris – usually organised by Sue, as his agoraphobia kept him from leaving Little Sparta.  In August-September 1983, at the height of the struggle with Strathclyde, he exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London a striking work consisting of eleven huge blocks of stone, incised in classical capital letters with a quotation from Saint-Just. The inscription on seven of the blocks reads: “THE PRESENT ORDER IS THE DISORDER OF THE FUTURE.” Two more blocks bear the name “SAINT-JUST”. The stones were later moved to the side of Lochan Eck at Little Sparta, where they lie amid the stark hills, powerfully dramatic, especially when the evening sun deepens the sharply etched lines of the letters. Commissions for landscape features at this period included a memorial in Münster to the 19th-century poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.

Just when the war with Strathclyde had simmered down a bit, Ian became involved in another war, which came to be known as the Follies War. What sparked it off was the appearance of a book entitled Follies: A National Trust Guide by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, published by Jonathan Cape in 1986, in which Stonypath-Little Sparta was mentioned in terms that Ian found deeply outrageous. The offending passage read as follows:

“Near the village of DUNSYRE about two miles west of the Peebles-Lanark border is Stonypath, a bogland garden developed from 1967 onwards by the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. It is a fine and justly famed new garden, but although there is an Apollo Temple, a broken column or two and an avalanche of poetic mottoes and inscriptions, the insistent namedropping of pastoral painters and writers and garden theorists tends to get on one’s nerves. Everything in Stonypath is on such a small and fragile scale that one starts hankering after something more manly, like a Wallace monument or a sturdy Gothick eyecatcher.”

Reading this passage, anyone familiar with Stonypath-Little Sparta would suspect that the authors had never seen it, otherwise they would have known that there are plenty of “manly” and “sturdy” features in the garden. Later it turned out that indeed neither of the authors had visited the place, which made their mocking, dismissive and inaccurate comments all the more offensive. The superficial tone of the book was set in the introduction, where the authors wrote: “To pepper your estate with temples is a natural, if expensive, version of the desire to ornament your car with a leopardskin steering-wheel cover, furry dice or an alsatian with brake-light eyes …”

Once again Ian declared war and, with the participation of the Vigilantes, began sending out a barrage of letters. Recipients included the National Trust, the Strathclyde Consumer Protection Department, the publishers Jonathan Cape and the two authors.  Flyers featuring French Revolutionary motifs were also used as weapons of attack. One of them, based on David’s painting The Death of Marat, showed a corpse with a bleeding sword hanging, Damoclean-wise, over it and bearing the words “I was published by Jonathan Cape”. Another showed a guillotine with the severed head of one of the authors. In addition, the Vigilantes visited selected bookshops and stuck labels saying “CENSORED BY THE SAINT-JUST VIGILANTES” into copies of the Guide.

The dispute was soon taken up by the press. As the newspaper The Independent reported on 30 January 1987: “Ian Hamilton Finlay and his cultural watchdogs The Saint-Just Vigilantes feel they might at last be making some headway in their struggle against the Philistine. Last Wednesday arch-Vigilante Finlay … was visited by the Strathclyde Consumer Protection Department after complaining at the inclusion of his sculpture garden in the National Trust’s Guide to Follies. The garden is not a folly, Finlay insists, nor is it small, fragile and unmanly as the book says. On the contrary, it is in the basic Western garden tradition and the authors of the Guide, Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, are unqualified to say otherwise because they have not seen it. Finlay wants the Department to prosecute co-publishers Jonathan Cape and the National Trust under the Trading Standards Act for this and other misrepresentations.”

The Follies War continued for about a year, and one outcome was that the National Trust withheld its name from the second edition of the Guide. The authors of the Guide counter-attacked, accusing Finlay of fascistoid tendencies, and this accusation should now be examined and laid to rest.

In the same provocative way that Finlay used motifs from the French Revolution he also used military themes from the Second War – both from the Allied side (e.g. his emblem on the Battle of Midway) and from the German side. This subject was addressed by Katherine Kurs and myself in the catalogue to an exhibition of Finlay’s work, held at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, in 1988:

“The theme of the struggle between art and nature which has preoccupied philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, is one that recurs frequently in Finlay’s work. A case in point is his work entitled OSSO, most recently on exhibition at the Tate, Liverpool and formerly on exhibition at ARC in Paris, consisting of three rough pieces of marble. The second bears the carved double lightning flash symbol of the SS, representing savage nature, with the concluding fragment having an ‘O’ added at each end to give OSSO, the Italian word for bone. This is complemented by another work consisting of a set of perfect cubes representing art.”

It was the misinterpretation of the OSSO work as a piece of Nazi graffiti which led to yet another war, which came to be known as the French War. The background to the affair was that Finlay was commissioned in April 1987 by the French Ministry of Culture to create a proposal for a garden commemorating the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, to mark the upcoming bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989. Shortly afterwards Finlay’s OSSO work was exhibited in Paris. One of the people who saw it was a woman journalist, editor of a well-known arts magazine, who took violent exception to Finlay’s use of the SS lightning-flash logo and started a campaign of vilification against him which was taken up by other sections of the French media. Fuel was added to the flames by a disgruntled sculptor who had formerly collaborated with Finlay but had quarrelled with him over the accreditation of a common work. This person released extracts of letters he had received from Finlay, which were quoted out of context so as to incriminate Finlay. Most damaging of all was a broadcast discussion on the radio station Europe 1 which attempted to tar Finlay with a Nazi and racist brush. On the same day as the broadcast the Ministry of Culture cancelled their commission.

Finlay reacted by taking legal action against his accusers, and the issue became even more of a cause célèbre than the Little Spartan War. Once again an avalanche of letters went to and fro, involving lawyers, the French government, the arts world and the press. Many people, within and outside France, rallied to Finlay’s defence, and the affair was widely reported in the British press, mostly in a way supportive of Finlay. Sue bravely went to France, dealt with lawyers and attended court hearings. Katherine and I, as Saint-Just Vigilantes, did our share of letter-writing and protesting. The legal case ended in judgement in Finlay’s favour – albeit with only token damages – but the protracted and expensive action and the wear and tear of the whole episode had put an immense strain on the Finlays.

The Later Years

The year 1989 – the bicentenary of the French Revolution – marks a caesura in this story. In that year Katherine and I moved to New York, where I stayed for four years. Then, when our marriage came to an end, I moved briefly to London and then to Germany, where I have remained. Meanwhile, shortly before I went to America, Ian and Sue split up. One of the most remarkable and creative partnerships in the history of art had come to an end, and a new phase in Ian’s life began. As Alec Finlay has written:

“We are familiar with the way Finlay’s creativity shaped itself around collaborative partnership and, in the 1990s, this role was fulfilled by the Hungarian curator Pia Maria Simig. If Sue was most at home in the garden, Pia’s expertise was in the gallery and artworld; her skill in co-creating installations, and her ability to promote the poet’s work through a series of major international exhibitions did much to cement his reputation as an artist. As well as completing large-scale permanent projects in Britain and Europe, together they created his second complete garden, Fleur de l’Air, in Provence (1997-2003).”

After leaving Britain I continued to correspond occasionally with Ian, to talk with him periodically on the telephone and to visit him when I was in Edinburgh. The major wars were now over, and Ian was financially secure for the first time in his life. In his autumnal years, besides working on commissioned projects and major exhibitions, he expanded the garden at Stonypath-Little Sparta and added many new works. To quote Alec Finlay again: “Now Robespierre gradually faded to Rousseau. The poet returned to model-making and summer was once again lit up with glider idylls. He also took up gardening as a hobby, walked the moorland bounds and enjoyed wandering up the woodland paths of the garden he and Sue had created.” Towards the end of his life he overcame his agoraphobia and was able to venture outside of Little Sparta.

One highlight of my early years in Hamburg was a large Finlay exhibition, organised by Pia Simig at the Deichtorhallen in 1995. Also present was Alec Finlay, by then a young man in his late twenties, whom I had not seen for many years. As I recorded in my diary: “He gave an excellent talk on the garden and his father’s work, illustrated with slides, delivered with a quiet passion and obvious devotion, focussing on the poetic aspects of the work.” Whereas it’s not unusual for sons of famous men to distance themselves from their fathers, I found Alec to be an admirable exception to this tendency. He is now a well-known artist and poet in his own right.

One of my diary entries for June 1998 records a visit to Ian while I was staying with my father and stepmother in Edinburgh: “Rented a car and drove out to see Ian Hamilton Finlay whom I had not seen for a year or so. Had tea in his front porch and a pleasant chat. Then he showed me round his garden which he is extending considerably, and I saw various new works of art that he has added. He is a bit slower than he used to be and can no longer do heavy work in the garden. He seemed a little tired, but the old twinkle and charm were still there.” I took a photograph of him sitting in his front porch beside a bust of Rousseau that was half hidden by a passion flower plant. I also photographed some of the new works, including a garden entrance flanked by pillars topped by hand grenades instead of pineapple finials, and silhouettes of Apollo chasing Daphne, cut from sheet metal and painted in bright colours [cover photograph]. I believe that may have been the last time I visited him at Stonypath-Little Sparta – at any rate, it’s the last visit I recorded in my diary.

Around 2001 my friend Nele Lipp in Hamburg planned to organise a weekend workshop and seminar on Ian’s work at a house in the Lüneburg Heath. We discussed the plan with him on the telephone and he was most supportive, but unfortunately not enough people registered for the event and it had to be cancelled. In January of 2002 I went again to Edinburgh and intended to visit Ian, but I heard that he had suffered a stroke and was too weak to see visitors.

The year 2005 saw the publication of my book Gardens of the Gods, dealing with the sacred and symbolic gardens of different regions and periods. It was dedicated “To Ian Hamilton Finlay, who started me on the quest”. And indeed the book would never have been written had I not met him. I had talked to him on the telephone about the book when it was still in the manuscript stage, and was pleased that he liked it.

The following year, on 27 March 2006, Ian died at the age of 80. Lengthy and admiring obituaries appeared in all the main British newspapers, and Tom Lubbock in the Independent concluded his piece by quoting the words of William Gerard Hamilton on the death of Samuel Johnson: “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up . . . Let us go to the next best: – There is nobody.” I can only echo that sentiment.

Dialogue between Apollo and a Saint-Just Vigilante

This dialogue was written by myself and Katherine Kurs for the public symposium “The Garden Temple, Little Sparta, and the Secularisation of Culture”, organised by the Talbot Rice Gallery, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish Arts Council, Edinburgh, in April 1988. I have included it here because it sums up what Ian Hamilton Finlay stood for and what his life’s work was all about.

Apollo: Are you one of those whom they call the Saint-Just Vigilantes, they who champion the cause of Ian Hamilton Finlay and guard my temple at Little Sparta?

Vigilante:  I am.

Apollo:  Then tell me this: is it true, as I have heard, that my temple is threatened, and if so what is the nature of this threat?

Vigilante:  Sadly, it is true that your temple is under threat, for the profane rulers who call themselves the Strathclyde Regional Council are demanding payment of taxes on the shrine and have already looted part of its treasures in lieu of taxes.

Apollo:  But by what right does this council levy tax on a sacred place? Are not holy places free of such tribute?

Vigilante:  Yes, it is true that in our land the temples of Jesus Christ, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha and a few favoured others are exempted from payment of tax, but alas you, Apollo, are not favoured in this way because your temples are not considered places of religious worship.

Apollo:  So your land has been overrun by barbarians, for surely only barbarians would fail to honour the virtues that I embody – the virtues of truth, beauty, order, the light of learning and the legacy of tradition.

Vigilante:  There are some who honour those virtues with their lips, but few who are willing to fight for them, and fewer still who have made them their religion.

Apollo:  How then is religion defined in your country?

Vigilante:  That depends on whom you ask. The law has no definition of religion, and therefore the tax-gatherers can define it as they please when deciding when to levy taxes. The citizens who practise worship do so on certain days in buildings that they call churches or temples to their gods and for the rest of the time most of them forget about their religion. The great majority, however, are indifferent to religion altogether.

Apollo:  A barbarian country indeed! But what of the scribes and philosophers, the thinkers and teachers, the artists and architects? They must surely be troubled by this state of affairs, for their work is to transmit supreme values and is therefore by definition sacred.

Vigilante:  There was a time when their work was indeed sacred, but that time has long since passed. We now live in an age when most artists and people of learning are ashamed to use the word sacred. Indeed our intellectual and artistic establishment is now directly hostile to religion.

Apollo:  It is indeed a bleak picture that you paint. But there must surely be some thinkers who still possess a sense of the sacred.

Vigilante:  There are but a few, and when they speak out they are immediately attacked by the secular establishment, which rules by terror and will do anything to suppress those who challenge its barren creed. This secular terror permeates the media, the universities, the law, the government, the arts – it is everywhere. O Apollo, those who foster this terror can no longer recall what the gods and their sacred places once meant.

Apollo:  But what of tradition?  Does your world not realise that it is through the past that you understand who you are, where you have come from, and where you are heading; and that the presence of the gods keeps your world in touch with that vision?

Vigilante:  Alas, this is a vision that is rarely known in our world. There is little regard, Apollo, for the legacy of tradition. Here, we are surrounded by facile optimism and a lack of reverence, both of which have replaced the desire to know and learn from our past.

Apollo:  But how can this be? Tradition is our very bones! How can they ignore this?

Vigilante:  They are fearful, cut off, blinded, ignorant! They wish to pretend that what is truly religious, truly awe-inspiring, truly powerful does not exist. They are not committed to anything except to themselves and to the easy and fashionable views of the moment. And that which endures – the earth and its great sweep of savage wildness and beauty, the challenging complexity of moral, ethical and religious questions, the yearning for truth and justice, order and abiding commitment, fills them with fear and bewilderment. The gods and goddesses, you and your kind, Apollo, embody all that they fear. And so they lash out upon you and upon those who uphold your virtues and thus they condemn your temple at Little Sparta and despoil your hallowed ground.

Apollo:  Keep to your fight then, Vigilantes! I and my kin will never be forgotten, and we will fight beside you to triumph over this plague of the secular terror that reigns in your age!

Photograph: Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1998.

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