Ian Hamilton Finlay: Twilight Remembers

September 2012

Publication: The Times

Humour is never far away from the Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work and is one of a range of devices the artist and poet used over the years in sculpture, prints, poetry and a wide range of other artistic devices, until his death in 2006.


One of Finlay’s favoured media was the postcard – a versatile, subtle and – in his hands – a surprisingly subversive form.  In one of a series of differently-coloured, postcard-sized prints black sans serif lettering stands out from a subtlely textured grey card.  ‘O.A.P.T.’ reads the acronym. What does it stand for? In a typically Finlay-esque device the key that unlocks the puzzle takes the form of indented lettering in the thick paper mount: Old Age Pensioners Tea.  The work’s two companion pieces – in orange and blue respectively – spell out A.F.V.T. and M.F.V.T. (Armoured Fighting Vehicle Tea and Motor Fishing Vessel Tea).


Part of Finlay’s humour is dependent on the dissonance between menacing war imagery on the one hand and the mundane or trivial on the other.  Finlay’s roots as a writer, poet and artist can be traced back to the Surrealists and the puzzling, intellectual quirkiness of artists such as Marcel Duchamp.


The one of the Surrealists’ main tropes was the use of the found object; in Finlay’s case it is the found image and most importantly the found idea that can operate as the basis of his work. The show, which can be divided into four main groupings, has elements not so much as the ‘l’objet trouvée’ but the ‘l’idée trouvé’ in each.  In the print room, which contains over a hundred postcard works, there are posters, prints and works on folded card. Almost all are characterised by a quirky and sometimes innocent humour. “The World Cup without Scotland is like a pastoral without sheep,” reads one (predominantly blue) postcard. The work makes use of one of several predominant themes in Finlay’s vast output – the pastoral. But such aphorisms do not stand alone. Their humour and depth is dependent on the conflation of apparently disparate themes such as the French Revolution, fishing boats, Greek mythology and war – in particular, the Second World War.


A film, made in conjunction with the composer John Purser, reveals Finlay’s almost-boyish fascination with models and war. Here, in a series of still frames, an ironing board doubles as an aircraft carrier while below, wooden ‘irons’ act as ships. The ships are then bombed by the model planes that take off from the ironing board’s ‘deck’.  The oddness of the imagery, exacerbated by the tension created by Purser’s music – completely at odds with the subject matter – suggests inspiration by filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel.


On the first floor of the gallery, Robin Gilanders’ photographs of Little Sparta – Finlay’s sculpture garden in the Pentland Hills – form a visual back-drop to carved stone sculpture with wording in classically-derived fonts, making links with aesthetes such as Eric Gill undeniable. In one, a simple piece of carving reminiscent of a milestone, with the words “MAN A PASSERBY” stands in front of a photograph of the garden. Its poignancy is increased significantly once we see it as an elegy by Finlay to himself as artist, an ultimately to to ourselves as we become, inextricably, part of the work.


Finlay is clearly an artist of great stature and is seen increasingly as one of Scotland’s most important and complex visual thinkers. That Finlay’s art has a long-standing commercial outlet worthy of its status is important, making his work available to a wider public.


·       Ian Hamilton Finlay, Selections, Edited with an Introduction by Alec Finlay, University of California Press, 2012 (£16.95)

·       The Little Sparta Trust – The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay: www.littlesparta.org.uk