Look, everybody, no hands]: Ian Hamilton Finlay is living proof that, when it comes to art, you can make an omelette without breaking eggs. Dalya Alberge reports on the centuries-old art of delegation and meets the craftsmen who create art to order

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The Independent Culture
Unless he is joking, Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Scottish sculptor shortlisted for Turner Prize in 1985, admits he can neither sculpt nor draw. That people can carve in 3-D is 'nothing short of a miracle,' he says. 'My drawing is terrible.'

Whether or not he was being modest is hard to tell because Finlay's sculptures, ceramics, tapestries and prints are entirely made for him. For someone who began in Concrete Poetry, a verbal and visual art, the idea of collaborating with other artists is natural. Through sculptures thick with metaphor, he blurs the divide between the arts, using typography, wordplay and symbolism drawn from history and philosophy. A work featuring three bronze watering-cans, for example, becomes a monument to those three fanatics of the French Revolution - Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon - who were all guillotined on a day called 'Arrosoir' (watering- can) in the revolutionary calendar.

But Finlay credits the craftspeople who make his work: the collaboration of those who carve, sculpt, mould and engrave his ideas is always acknowledged in his exhibition captions, as will be the contribution of the four artist-craftsmen from the Carving Workshop in Cambridge who are currently producing several pieces for him. He is critical of artists such as Jeff Koons, the neo-Pop master of kitsch, who do not credit those who help realise their ideas.

Such is the sensitivity on the subject of artists who use collaborators that Dhruva Mistry, the sculptor, last year refused to discuss with me the Carving Workshop's role in a major commission for Birmingham.

But in the art world there is nothing new about someone taking credit for the work of others; Old Masters regularly did it. Rubens, for example, expected his assistants to sign his signature on paintings which they had produced in his style; and, although his pictures were priced according to the level of his input, he once wrote that, even if he had added only the finishing touches, he still saw the painting as his own. Rembrandt, too, is said to have made a considerable income from his assistants' 'Rembrandts'. Even if a master wanted to give one of his assistants some credit, the law forbad it: a 1651 Utrecht guild regulation stipulated that a master's assistants could neither work in a different manner nor sign their own names.

For the Renaissance master, the 'idea' was all-important: how it was executed was left to the skill of his collaborators, albeit working under his watchful eye. With Van Dyck in his workshop, you can understand why Rubens felt his paintings were in safe hands. And without the hierarchy of master, assistants and apprentices, Rubens could never have painted the 2,500 pictures that are said to have come from his palatial Antwerp studio - let alone had time for his colourful diplomatic career. Neither could Lucas Cranach, the great 16th- century German master, have coped with all his commissions without assembly-line production in which he prepared the designs and his assistants did the rest.

In the 18th century, British portraitists like Reynolds and Kneller employed assistants to paint draperies on their portraits. Although the workshop tradition dwindled in the 19th century - with the increasing emphasis on individuality and self-expression and the growing number of artists working independently, without patronage - it never disappeared.

Picasso, for example, had assistants, producing lithographs and translating his drawings on to zinc plates; the Disney studios have been described as a supreme example of a workshop in the Old Master tradition in that, however many artists worked on the cartoons, they always emerged as unmistakably Disney. Andy Warhol, too, kept a 'Factory' of assistants, believing that, as an artist should not come too close to his art, others should make it for him (though, of course, we will never know whether Warhol could ever have made it as an apprentice in the school of a master like Rubens or Reynolds).

But the 20th-century workshop does not necessarily have assistants working under one roof: Finlay's expert artisans - engravers, ceramicists, glass-makers, embroiderers and architects (he says he conceives an idea with a particular craftsperson's strengths in mind) - are spread around the country. As Finlay rarely strays far from home, he primarily communicates with them by phone and fax, checking their progress through photographs. That is exactly how the Carving Workshop has collaborated with him over the past four years, producing several of the sculptures today sited in his neo-Classical garden at Stonypath in the Lanarkshire hills, as well as in exhibitions worldwide. Among them is the Carving Workshop's stone basket, overflowing with oranges, hazelnuts, hops and maize - a celebration of the month of Fructidor (again a reference to the French Revolution).

For this, Finlay supplied an engraving (which an illustrator had produced for him) for the Workshop to turn into naturalistic 3-D. The Workshop then produced models in clay and plaster for Finlay's approval before preceding with the finished version. After seeing the final sculpture, however, Finlay decided on an alteration, asking for the round basket to be changed to a square one. 'Finlay demands precision,' says the Workshop's Jamie Sargeant. But the fruits of their labour did not go to waste: the round ones went into exhibitions rather than into the garden.

In some respects, the Old Masters would probably feel at home in the Cambridge Workshop, so similar is it to a 16th-century studio. They would recognise the gentle tapping of mallet and chisel on stone; they would recognise the scrunch underfoot of stone chippings scattered over the floor, and the rough-hewn blocks of stone waiting to be transformed; and they would recognise the smell and feel of chalky dust that covers every surface. The only reminders of the 20th century are the electric drills (for smoothing surfaces) and diamond-cutters (for cutting through stone).

There are differences, of course. The Carving Workshop craftsmen all seem happy in their work, whereas some classic masters would have got into trouble with the Department of Employment over the conditions under which their assistants worked. Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th-century sculptor, even boasted that his apprentices worked 'to the bone with perpetual labour'. He also ensured that they could not rival him. Mark Kostabi, a New York artist famous for the works which his assistants paint and which he then signs and sells for tens of thousands, knows the problem. He has accused one of them of painting and selling fake Kostabis.

The Carving Workshop: 53a St Philips Rd, Cambridge (0223 410751).

Stonypath: Little Sparta, Dunsyre, Lanark (0899 81252)

(Photograph omitted)