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Critic's Choice: Ian Hamilton Finlay's gardens

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Ian Hamilton Finlay's gardens are sensual, yet filled with meaning, writes Andrew Mead

In a provocative essay called ‘Must Landscapes Mean?’ (Landscape Journal, Spring 1995), American landscape historian Marc Treib asked: ‘Why do landscape architects today seek significance rather than pleasure?’  He argued that their designs should cater primarily for the physical senses rather than the mind. The Scottish artist and garden-maker Ian Hamilton Finlay, who died in 2006, never neglected the physical senses but always embedded his schemes with meaning. His own garden, Little Sparta, in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, is dense with temples, sculptures and inscriptions (see picture below). It’s an intricate and allusive work of art; a place where you’re prompted to think about what you see.

Finlay’s references range from classical Greece to the French Revolution, with many detours along the way, and they can sometimes be cryptic. In Nature Over Again: The Garden Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Reaktion, £29.95), University of Pennsylvania professor John Dixon Hunt is an expert guide to the complexities of Little Sparta and Finlay’s other major works – most notably his evocative Fleur de l’Air garden in Provence. Whether discussing a bird table in the shape of an aircraft carrier, a gilded head of Apollo or a row of guillotines, Dixon Hunt illuminates Finlay’s intentions and shows that ‘meaning’ and ‘pleasure’ are not at odds. Nature Over Again is conceived as a series of ‘separate mini-essays’, which creates some repetition, but that’s a minor fault in an incisive book.

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