The Naval Gaze: Ian Hamilton Finlay at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre

Ian Hamilton Finlay (with Andrew Whittle), 'Sails CN 16', 1998. © The Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay
Ian Hamilton Finlay (with Andrew Whittle), 'Sails CN 16', 1998. © The Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay


Daily 10:00 - 17:00

From: 22 May 2021

To: 3 Oct 2021

City Art Centre
2 Market St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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In his book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe wrote that the overriding shift in 20th-century art was the transfer of a piece of work’s meaning – first onto the work’s surface (the work is all about the forms and shapes that you see right there – nothing more), and later onto the viewer (the meaning of what you see  – and what the artist might have meant – is up to you). Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) can be seen as both of these: the form of what you see – beautiful, minimal – stands on its own, but what is the meaning behind all the oblique, Zen-like texts and inscriptions? He was, naturally and gently, playing a game, with us and with language, visual and literal.

In a show mounted in partnership with the artist’s Estate, presented as part of Edinburgh Art Festival 2021 and Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 20/21, the focus is on the nautical theme that he returned to throughout his career; although even without that dimension, the abiding impression is that Hamilton Finlay was wedded primarily to the practice of arranging language in visual form – known as concrete poetry. Considered a 20th-century artform, it is as old as lettering itself, and rooted very much in classicism, expressing ideas in which the form of an idea is as important as the meaning contained in its text. Look up ‘Concrete Poetry’ and you will find Hamilton Finlay listed as a prominent exponent, and the pre-eminent Scottish exemplar.

Ian Hamilton Finlay (with John Andrew), 'Ships Bells - Iroko Wrap-Around - Strake', 2002. © The Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay
Ian Hamilton Finlay (with John Andrew), ‘Ships Bells – Iroko Wrap-Around – Strake’, 2002. © the estate of the artist

Add the nautical dimension, and you have the perfect petri-dish for myriad ideas: ships’ bells, sails, oars, hulls and funnels are ideal vessels, if you’ll excuse the pun, for lettering. In much the way a graphic designer will insert ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet’ in a design before the actual wording has been finalised, the artist has devised oblique, minimal phrases, of as little as a few letters or numbers; these are chosen carefully, and are often exquisite and delicate, and while their integration into the artwork makes perfect visual sense, the meaning is veiled or even cryptic.

Ian Hamilton Finlay (with Gary Hincks), 'Rudder', 1999. © The Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay
Ian Hamilton Finlay (with Gary Hincks), ‘Rudder’, 1999. © the estate of the artist

The effect is not unsettling but rather ‘head-scratching’, so to speak – a short Zen-like epigram – is he being impish, or making a mature statement? An elevation of a modern Royal Navy destroyer has its funnel and masts annotated with architectural-order inscriptions: ‘Doric’, ‘Ionian’, and the inscription below For the temples of the Greeks our homesickness lasts forever. What does he mean? And what am I to make of it? But you never feel you are the brunt of a high-concept art joke, rather you you are invited-in by the beauty of that poetic line, to think around it and enjoy its slender gracefulness.

Ian Hamilton Finlay seemed the elemental artist-director: he worked on his ideas with a proficient artisan who could literally give it shape, to his satisfaction, hence the overwhelming number of collaborators listed – screenprinters, engravers, stonemasons etc. Then he would have another idea, enlisting further collaborations, working his way through an all-embracing panoply of media such as neon lighting, sculpture or tapestry.

Ian Hamilton Finlay (with Patrick Caulfield), 'Marine', 1968. © The Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Photo - Antonia Reeve
Ian Hamilton Finlay (with Patrick Caulfield), ‘Marine’, 1968. © the estate of the artist. Photo Antonia Reeve

Enduringly associated with his unique garden Little Sparta at Stonypath in the Pentland Hills to the west of Edinburgh, it’s arguably in the marine context that Hamilton Finlay was best able to exhibit his versatility and, beautifully, give expression to his most abstract thinking.

Admission is free via the gallery’s website, and tickets afford access to other free exhibits in the Centre: four works by Joan EardleyIslander: the paintings of Donald Smith and Charles H Mackie: Colour and Light. The show is accompanied by an exciting events programme in-situ and online, and a catalogue is available with an extensive essay by Stephen Bann CBE, Emeritus Professor of History of Art and Senior Research Fellow at Bristol University, containing images of a great many of the works on show. Photography is not permitted, and licensing of images is strictly limited; thank you to City Art Centre for facilitating the use of those shown.

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