Concrete words and earthy images

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The Independent Culture
LITTLE SPARTA, the garden built by the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay in the Pentland Hills some 30 miles south west of Edinburgh, is one of the great art works of the late 20th century and, I'd argue, one of the greatest works of art ever made on Scottish soil. Certainly, it's the greatest ever made of Scottish soil - the realisation of one man's vision of a classical garden in the midst of an untamed land. Rather an eccentric vision, or, as Finlay has put it, a vision "which was absolutely absurd considering this was just a moorland and I had only a spade".

Work began in 1966, when Finlay and his wife Sue first took on the shepherd's cottage that is now his home, and has continued ever since. Constantly evolving and growing, as gardens do, and prompting all sorts of now legendary battles between Finlay and Strathclyde Region over the nature (or as they saw it, the rateable value) of the garden buildings.

These days, Little Sparta stands as testament to one of the most original and creative minds to have emerged in this country since the Second World War, but for a variety of complicated reasons, it can't readily be seen by the public. So, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of Robert Gillander's photographs is to be warmly welcomed, for it is as close to the garden as most folk are likely to get. And without the garden, I don't think that one can really begin to understand what Finlay is about.

Gillander's photographs are not, however, simply a record of Finlay's achievements. They are in themselves very beautiful images: the best landscape photography, thoughtful and, in every sense of the word, composed. Together, they add up to a portrait of a man and his work made over several years and many visits, and one which shares both Finlay's sense of humour and sadness.

These moods crop up on you in the garden and in Gillander's portrait. Sometimes, like his aircraft carrier bird table, making a joke: turning the swallows into fighter jets. Sometimes suggesting a more sombre thought such as that met at the end of the garden by a small headstone, elegantly lettered with a single word - Fragile - a reminder of the nature of things with the bare moor land beyond.

Finlay first made his name at the forefront of the concrete poetry movement in the early 1960s and still describes himself firstly as a poet. Certainly, a search for poetic expression is at the heart of all that he does; that and the all-important place of man in relation to nature - the necessary imposition of order on chaos and the battle that ensues. All of this is central to his work. All of it feeds back to his work at Little Sparta. The show at the Portrait Gallery is accompanied by a series of Finlay's "detached sentences". One of them, "Certain gardens are described as retreats/ when they are really attacks", reads like a coda for his life's work.

Until 29 November

Richard Ingleby