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Columns : Art Life - Susan Mackay Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

A Bahamian/Scottish Hero- Ian Hamilton Finlay
By Susan Mackay
Jan 24, 2007 - 12:13:18 PM

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The Scottish Parliament building is an enigma.   The architect, the late Enric Moralles was Spanish and designed an intriguing building to be the flagship of new Scottish politics. ( I will not- I promise- go into the politics)  In Edinburgh, near Holyrood Palace, (the Queen's Edinburgh residence), the Parliament building has created a stir.   People either love it or hate it.   It is hard to be ambiguous about such a building.   The exterior has, what looks like large gun motifs and an alarming amount of metal bars, organically bent and apparently randomly placed over the windows.


Once inside, the space opens up and suddenly makes sense.   Check out  www.thescottishparliament.com     for images of the building.    I love it.


I think it is a bold unreasonable building.   It seems to defy expectations at every turn, especially in a city that is renowned for its exquisite range of traditional architecture, it is a challenge.   Inside is like swimming on a windy day, at every step and turn there is a tilt and compelling view.   The architect made full use of the pretty panorama of Arthur’s Seat ( a large lions head of a mountain in the centre of Edinburgh) on its door step.   High windows taunt you with the drama of a Scottish sky.   The main debating chamber is reminiscent of a ship, with sumptuous wood.   It’s a fascinating building – apparently with its own intelligence- whatever that means!


Not only is the building a piece of art and walking through it an experience itself, there is an extensive art collection containing a variety of commissioned, donated and acquired pieces.

“The key ideas and themes behind the art are around identity, the importance of our relationship to the sea and to the land and about who we are as the people of Scotland


With an agenda like that I was startled to see a piece of art by a man who was born in the Bahamas.  


Ian Hamilton Finlay (b 1925- 2006) is a quintessentially Scottish artist who I was very sad to learn died last year. He spent his first few years of life in Nassau, Bahamas before moving to Scotland with his parents.  I am fascinated by this connection – a man who is a bit of an inscrutable hero in Scotland, was born and inevitabley, must have been influenced by his time in this country I consider home. Although now considered significant in the world of art, it was through his passion for Concrete Poetry that he discovered a path to Contemporary Art..  

This obsession with words is apparent in his home ‘Little Sparta’. (
www.ianhamiltonfinlay.com) Nestled in the Pentland Hills that over look Edinburgh, he created an amazing empire.  


The interview posted by ‘Jacket 15, December with Ian Hamilton Finlay by Nagy Rashwan, is absolutely fascinating and revealing of this man and his work.   Through the interview it is possible to hear the stoutness of Hamilton’s self belief.  

His work seemed to cause a challenge to the institutions of art:   He was criticised for his prolific use of crafts people to create many of his pieces of art. He had numerous ‘disputes’ with established organisations as diverse as Strathclyde Council to The National Trust.   But asserted, that contrary to the typical belief of artists as radical, he is merely explaining his position and maybe, a little misunderstood!

Upon questioned about his use of Classical motifs prevalent in the beautiful gardens of little Sparta, Finlay explained. “It is quite a natural process to use other times to understand your own time.”

In the interview he goes on to complain about the loss of ‘piety’ in today’s culture, our lack of understanding about the past and the art worlds narrow obsession with what is ‘fashionable’.


I have never been to ‘Little Sparta’, I have only seen one piece of his work, a sparsely reconstructed boat entitled ‘Coble’ (1996. With Peter Grant), tucked in the Scottish Parliament Building.   From that and photos I have seen I think his work is intriguing and beautiful and I confess other than an aesthetic and humorous appreciation for his words, I don’t ‘understand’, especially when Nagy Rashwan says,

“For me, the strength of his work’s particularity lies in its extraordinary ability to interrogate fundamental concepts of artistic articulation while proving itself both politically and culturally — neither classical nor traditional as Finlay himself declares — but both Sublime, and decidedly contemporary” !

However I do understand, the resolute passion of a man whose cultural, spiritual, philosophical, political and artistic beliefs painted him as a somewhat radical eccentric.  I admire that although creating works of captivating and intellectually challenging beauty and exhibiting in galleries like the Tate, London, he was still a poor man, living outside the lines of ‘conventional’ avant-garde or post modern art movements and most especially its pervasive commercial influence.

Out with the lines of such artistic movements, Ian Hamilton Findlay words, regarding his use of a variety of media, sum up the basis of most artistic process….

“I think all of these things are to do with composing. What you compose with is neither here nor there, you compose with words, or you compose with stone plants and trees, or you compose with events; the Sheriff’s officer, or whatever. It is all a matter of composing and ‘order’.

The Bahamas and Scotland can share its sorrow at the loss of this fascinating man and artist, but share in celebrating the challenging and beautiful art that he created!





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