At Tate Britain

Fatema Ahmed

Le Circus 1964 © Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay

The Scottish poet, artist, gardener, toymaker, publisher, provocateur and agoraphobic Ian Hamilton Finlay died in 2006. His afterlife has been tended mainly by the art world, which may have come as a surprise to Finlay, an art-school dropout, who wrote to a friend some time in the 1950s or 1960s: ‘The art racket must be broken... O Fat old dealers, O Art School Professors, O shoddy virtuosos – you are all going to hell.’ This attitude gave way over time to a vendetta against ‘state-aided’ art. His enemies included the Scottish Arts Council, Strathclyde local authority and Catherine Millet (now better known as Catherine M.), the editor of the French magazine Art Press. ‘People have always found me challenging,’ Finlay said in a 1996 interview. ‘I don’t know why, when I am only being myself.’

He produced so much, in so many forms – stone, paper, neon, prose and poetry, in French and Latin, in the gallery and, in the case of Fleur de l’Air (the garden he created in Provence) out of bounds – that it’s hard to know how to approach it. There’s no catalogue raisonné. In the last couple of years there have been exhibitions at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London and the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, and now Tate Britain has pulled out works from its permanent collection to display in its Duveen Galleries until 17 February.

The first thing you see when you go in is the Christmas tree framed in the doorway of the gift shop opposite. Then your eye is drawn up to the right, to a bronze guillotine blade hanging on the wall above some bronze and stone gardening tools, with the inscription: ‘Quin morere ut merita es ferroque averte dolorem/Aeneid IV’. The combination of a French Revolutionary artefact with one of the best-known lines from the Aeneid (Dido deciding on suicide; Aeneas has abandoned her to get a move on with his mission to found Rome) makes Quin Morere (1991) in many ways a typical Finlay object: a visual neoclassical pun which arranges its components in tension, making the object less menacing and the words more so. On the other side of the doorway, at ground level, there are some instalments of A Wartime Garden, a series of 24 limestone blocks resting on pilasters, carved with a military image and a more pastoral description. On another wall, a neon flag from 1989 says ‘Je vous/salue/marat’ in tricoleur blue, white and red, over a sign pointing the way to the cafe.

There’s a display of books published by Wild Hawthorn Press, which Finlay started with Jessie McGuffie in 1961; a vitrine of his early concrete poetry, including his first poster poem, Le Circus (concrete poetry, he wrote to Pierre Garnier in 1963, ‘is a model, of order, even if set in a space which is full of doubt’); and some editions of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse, Wild Hawthorn’s poetry journal, which ran for 25 issues between 1962 and 1968. Contributors included American poets like Robert Creeley and Lorine Niedecker. One of Finlay’s aims seems to have been to defend Scottish literature against archaising folk-revivalists. (His neoclassicism, however, was a 'rearmament programme'.) ‘There is no need for Scotland to be different from other nations,’ he wrote in 1966, in his short Autobiographical Sketch. ‘We should have a contemporary literature like everywhere else.’

The only display in the second long gallery, otherwise empty except for a bench against a wall, is six slabs of bath stone hanging from steel chains, made to look like fragments of a broken and reassembled frieze. The piece, seven metres long, bears the inscription: ‘The World Has Been Empty Since the Romans’ (Saint-Just in 1792, reporting on Danton’s arrest to the National Convention). The words are also carved on a small tilted block of granite at Little Sparta, the garden in Lanarkshire that Finlay created with his second wife, Sue MacDonald Lockhart, and which he rarely left once he’d installed himself there (he didn’t leave at all for 30 years). It’s now open every year between June and September. I went on the last weekend of the season last year, on a freezing wet day. Finlay’s work is always playful, but the neoclassical garden was a serious undertaking. And if Finlay and his collaborators (the sculptors, carpenters and sign-makers he always credited) reworked ideas in other forms for other settings, the version in the garden is invariably the best. The Saint-Just quotation is bombastic stretched over seven metres, hung on chains above your head, but on a small cube sunk into the ground at a 45 degree angle, it does the business.

And there’s plenty more work by Finlay waiting to be rediscovered. A selection of his writing came out this year, edited by Alec Finlay. In his long, detailed and unsentimental introduction, he says that his father was ‘the best writer of letters in the English language since Robert Louis Stevenson’. Only fascinating fragments of these letters have been published, embedded as quotations in introductions to or primers on his work, or in a thin booklet called A Model of Order. Finlay’s early stories, sketches set in Perthshire and often featuring trout, are hard to get hold of. And I wonder if this still exists: ‘I wrote a one-act play, but it was a disaster. For one thing, it somehow came to include 2000 sheep.’