Ian Hamilton Finlay: Nature over again after Poussin 1979 - 1980

August 2013

Publication: The Times

First shown at the Collins Gallery in 1980, this collection of photographs by Dave Paterson shows aspects of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta, in relation to a number of historically important landscape painters. Each of Paterson’s images is mounted in perspex in two joined halves, suggesting a book. These in turn have been set on uniform white pedestals in a wide arc, implying an arrangement within a classical mausoleum.The individual works are titled using the artists’ names and dates.


Callendar House, set in 500 acres of landscaped grounds near the centre of Falkirk, is an apt venue for Finlay’s work. The artist grew up on the estate of Hopetoun House and his major theme is the garden, where humanity and nature intersect.


The show’s title is typical of Finlay. Combining wit and learning, it refers to the painter Paul Cézanne’s desire to ‘paint Poussin over again after nature’.  The enigmatic phrase was generally taken to indicate Cézanne’s desire to combine the classicism and order of Nicolas Poussin’s landscapes with a contemporary mode of depiction. Like Poussin, Cézanne was concerned with the underlying structure of his painting, and famously sought to see objects in nature in terms of the cone, cylinder and the sphere. In Finlay’s reworking of the phrase, the term ‘after’ is a pun, which not only refers to time but also means ‘in the manner of’.


Finlay has added a layer of meaning to Cézanne’s aphorism by using the landscape of Little Sparta like a series of paintings, to which he has added the artists’ signatures by means of initials carved in stone. In all, eleven painters are represented including Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875).  Finlay worked with long-term collaborator, the letter-cutter Nicholas Sloan, to create the signatures. The garden at Stonypath in the Pentland Hills, named Little Sparta in 1983 after a dispute with Strathclyde Regional Counciland, was created in partnership with the artist’s wife, Sue Finlay.


Most of Paterson’s photographs have been taken in summer with the exception of the composition representing Jacob Ruisdael (1628-1682), which appears to have been made during the winter months. This shows a carved stone fragment, possibly from a trough or similar vessel, onto which the characteristic italic flourish of Ruisdael’s entwined initials have been inscribed. The image shows the carved stone placed next to a sluice which empties ‘Lochan Eck’, the small body of water created early on by the Finlays, as part of their landscaping vision.


All of the pieces here allude to work by the painters Finlay names. In the image dedicated to Antoine Watteau, which shows a guitar leaning against a classical urn, there is a clear reference to the artist’s paintings of musicians.  However, other references remain stubbornly opaque such as in the Gaspard Dughet (1615-1675) piece, which appears to offer no characteristic clue about a specific painting or a more general approach.


But perhaps it was Finlay’s and his collaborators’ intention to make the audience work hard to decode such cleverly layered imagery.