Rachel Pastan
February 10, 2014

Gardening with Words: Ian Hamilton Finlay

“Everyone thinks of a garden as a retreat, but it’s really a form of attack,” John Dixon Hunt says, quoting the Scottish poet, artist, gardener, and publisher Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay was also, at one time or another, shepherd, soldier, provocateur, Turner prize nominee, and subject of the book, Nature Over Again, written by Hunt, Emeritus Professor of Landscape Architecture here at Penn. He touches a book, one of many objects spread out on the long table: posters, stickers, broadsheets, letters. A Sussex trug, a set of rusty metal pruners, sketches of a garden, and a long, four-pronged garden fork. An envelope with “What Is Not Resolved In Language Is Resolved In Blood” stamped on the front. All of these things bear Finlay’s imprint.


Finlay enjoyed a good fight. Best known for the garden, Little Sparta (named for the militant Greek city-state), which he and his wife Sue began creating in 1966 in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, Finlay saw words, plants, objects, and environments as intertwined—and frequently in need of defending against all comers. Especially if those comers were government officials. A 1983 tax dispute in which, with the help of a band of neighbors and a well-placed tractor, he outsmarted the local sheriff and bailiffs, apparently provided great satisfaction.

Professor Hunt will be speaking about Finlay on February 26 at ICA, where an exhibition of Finlay’s work—anchored by these objects—will be on view from February 26 to March 9. He’s here today to see what ICA curator Alex Klein and Penn’s Kislak Center Special Collections curator Lynne Farrington have selected for that show.

Group at Table

Finlay’s early work was in concrete poetry: poems that use typography and the arrangement of the words on the page for part of their effect. A garden was another kind of page onto which to arrange words. As Alex explains, “Finlay was a concrete poet who moved from the space of the page to the garden where he worked with actual concrete forms.” He used other materials too, but that basic pun—that playful determination to turn things on their heads and see how they look—was central to Finlay’s approach.

In 1961 Finlay founded Wild Hawthorn Press and began publishing books, posters, broadsheets, and pamphlets, many of which are laid out here on the table. But the garden, too, was a book to be read, literally as well as metaphorically. At Little Sparta, trees were hung with ceramic plaques engraved with names and surrounded by benches chiseled with playful poems (“THE SEA’S WAVES / THE WAVES’ SHEAVES / THE SEA’S NAVES”). Boulders on a hillside bear one great word each, spelling out poetry in stone. White beehives are inscribed with the names of fishing boats, together with their home ports and numbers: “Bountiful, UL 238” (“UL” is Ullapool); “Sweet Promise, FH 172” (FH is “Falmouth”). Here the hives are a kind of literalized metaphor linking bees and fisherman, both of whom forage far from home in a dangerous world. A sheep enclosure made of stone—dedicated to the artist, and translator of Virgil’s Eclogues, Samuel Palmer—has words inscribed on each side:


Shrubs, urns, gates, trees, streams, temples, grass: all have their place, all are a way of writing on the world, of shaping nature.

Spread On Table

Alex and Lynne’s exhibition, AVANT-GARDEner: Ian Hamilton Finlay, is part of a bigger exhibition, ICA@50, which opens February 12 and runs through the summer. Celebrating ICA’s 50th birthday, ICA@50 takes shows from the museum’s past as jumping off points for new investigations and new works of art. AVANT-GARDEner is Alex and Lynne’s response to Between Object and Environment: Sculpture in an Extended Format (1969). Alex explains that the new idea is “to flip that on its head and think about this concrete poetry in the landscape.” She quotes Finlay for me: “A garden is not an object, it’s a process.”

The real challenge for Alex and Lynne has been to select from a wealth of material only as many objects as they can reasonably fit into one show. They have about a hundred now, printed pieces mostly, but also a couple of discarded wheelbarrows from Little Sparta borrowed from Penn’s Architectural Archives. A slide projector will show images of Little Sparta. The garden as a process; the garden as a book to read. The garden as a mode of attack.


It’s time to pack up the objects on the table and go, but Lynne says, “Oh, I added something!” She holds out a card for us to read: All wars grow mossy.

It’s winter now, the snow lying heavily on the grass and the flowerbeds. It will be winter still when this exhibition is on view. But this spring, when the first crocuses push out of the hard dirt—here in Philadelphia, or near the Pentland Hills in Scotland, or wherever you’re reading this—having glimpsed the world through Ian Hamilton Finlay’s eyes, we’ll read them differently.

Garden is Open

AVANTE-GARDEner will be on view Wednesday, February 26 through Sunday, March 9. The materials in this exhibition come from different sources and are part of the collection of Penn’s new Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts. These include the recent acquisition of a major collection of manuscripts, printed materials, artifacts, and ephemera collected by Finlay’s next door neighbor, friend, and sometimes collaborator, Graeme Moore as well as gifts of printed materials from Professor Hunt and from Ruth and Marvin Sackner, founders of the Miami-based Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry.

John Dixon Hunt’s lecture, “Gardens as a Mode of Attack,” will be presented on Wednesday, February 26, at 6:30 p.m. at ICA

ICA@50 is on view at ICA February 12 – August 17, 2014

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