Friday, 22 September 2006

Say it with flowers

The obituaries after the death of the Scottish sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay in March 2006 – it was picked up by newspapers around the world – all unerringly mentioned within the first few sentences the one creation for which he will be remembered. But it wasn’t a sculpture, an installation or a video. It didn’t win him the Turner Prize. It wouldn’t fit in a gallery. He never sold it. It was, in fact, his garden, Little Sparta, set into the Pentland Hills not far from Edinburgh.

I have never visited it, but it seems a wonderful place. He and his wife bought the semi-derelict farmhouse in 1966, and worked 40 years to create what is now considered to be the most important post second world war garden in Britain. Within its six acres there are nearly 300 of his sculptures in the form of inscribed stones, monuments and buildings.

Finlay’s garden, labour of love as it may have been, doesn’t seem to have been a place he went to get away from it all. People think of gardens as a retreat, he once said, but his garden was an attack. He seemed to set about falling out with people, and the inscribed sculptures in his garden don’t hold back. Political references abound, and his allusions to the horrors of the Third Reich and his confrontational nature too often landed him in trouble – most famously with the French government and the Scottish Arts Council. Even naming the garden after a temple, Little Sparta, was an attempt to avoid the paying higher taxes it would attract by being classified as an art gallery. So the bailiffs came around.

Gardening, like painting, usually gives the impression of being the relaxing option, the kind of pastime people turn to when they need a break or therapy. Gardening and painting, some think, are the fluffy kinds of things you do when you've finished real work, either at the end of the day or as you hit retirement age. To some they are what stop you going gaga, and help take your mind off the fact that your pension isn't quite as much as you expected it would be.

Finlay isn’t, of course, the only artist to make a mark with a garden in the UK in recent times. Barbara Hepworth’s small, walled garden by her studio in St Ives, Ivon Hitchens’s cleared from woodland in Lavington Common, West Sussex and the painter and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s among the desolate pebbles of Dungeness, are all distinctive and highly personal artists’ gardens.

The processes, it seems to me, are similar for making art and making a garden. You start off with some very unpromising raw materials dragged from the earth. With vision, planning and patience something beautiful and enriching can spring from it, but you shouldn’t count on it. Gardening is like painting in very, very slow motion. Instead of the usual hour or two – or even less – for it to come to your realisation that a painting has gone seriously awry, with a garden it can take a year or two – or perhaps even decades – for it to dawn on you that you should have planted the avenue of poplars at right angles to the laurel hedge.

Finlay proved that gardening can be so much more than an escape, if you want it to be. It can be about colour, light, movement and composition, just as art can, but it can be political too. Gardening with attitude. Little Sparta was evidently something vital and current to him throughout his life. If he did find gardening therapeutic, it certainly doesn't seem to have calmed him much. And painting can be just the same.

No comments: