Friday, February 20, 2015

The Louvre of the Pebble

We were at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge last weekend to see Beauty and Revolution: The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay.  You can read a review of this in the FT and I also recommend a post on Ken Worpole's excellent blog which concludes that Finlay’s great and original achievement was 'the re-inscription of the landscape.'  The exhibition has its origins in the early sixties when the future art historian and promoter of concrete poetry Stephen Bann got to know both Finlay and the owner of Kettle's Yard, Jim Ede.  His catalogue essay makes it all sound rather wonderful...
'I am not able to pinpoint exactly the period when I began to wend my way not infrequently from my room in King's College, University of Cambridge, across the Backs to Kettle's Yard, and to spend the late afternoon drinking tea from Jim's silver bullet teapot.  Certainly by the summer of 1963, this pleasant habit was well entrenched.  Jim wrote to me from Derbyshire to congratulate me on my success in part two of the History Tripos exam, and then surprised me by giving me a small self-portrait by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) as a twenty-first birthday present.  It was in August of the following year that I made the journey up to Edinburgh to meet Ian Hamilton Finlay...'
Bann traces the subsequent connections between Finlay and Ede: Finlay was interested in Kettle's Yard despite being unable to visit it in person, Ede corresponded with him and went up to visit Stonypath, the garden Finlay began to develop in the late sixties.  Their mutual admiration seems to have been tempered with some aesthetic differences.  In 1972 Bann offered a Finlay piece that he owned to Kettle's Yard but it was politely declined.  He thinks Finlay's use of text may have been a barrier for Ede, although looking round the house I was reminded that it includes a text piece by another artist-poet, David Jones.  Ede rather tactlessly filled one of Finlay's bowls with pebbles, obscuring the inscription, and a few years later Finlay wrote one of his detached sentences: 'Kettle's Yard, in Cambridge, England, is the Louvre of the PEBBLE'.  This was later inscribed onto a flat pebble and acquired for Kettle's Yard, where it can has been placed artfully on a table the colour of driftwood, an ambiguous compliment to a collection Bann believes Finlay always did admire.

Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley, schiff, 1975
Max Planck institute, Stuttgart

That bowl obscured by pebbles was a version of schiff, in which the German word for ship is reflected to suggest the presence of water. The lettering was designed by Ron Costley, one of Finlay's long-time collaborators, who sadly died earlier this month.  His work in the exhibition includes Prinz Eugen, a print of a ship that is also a tribute to the concrete poet Eugen Gomringer, Sheaves, which I referred to in a post here six years ago, and Spiral Binding, in which a sketchbook is converted into a yacht with such simplicity that it is tempting to try to make a version oneself.  Costley was one of the many designers and makers who helped Finlay develop his garden - the exhibition includes a poetic early film Stonypath Days, showing the garden as it was in 1973 (although the sound was turned so low it was impossible to hear Stephen Bann's occasional comments on the soundtrack).   It would be fascinating to write a book about the independent artistic lives of all Finlay's collaborators, ranging from Patrick Caulfield, subject of a major exhibition at the Tate last year, to my friend Colin's father, who helped Finlay print his poems in the late sixties. 

On returning from Cambridge I read an interesting essay on Ian Hamilton Finlay by Marjorie Perloff, published online in the latest edition of the Battersea Review.  Her discussion of 'Finlayan Translation' refers to several texts that can be read as minimal landscape poems, such as 'Kennst Du', a version of Goethe that I think was in the Kettle's Yard exhibition (it is not listed in the catalogue so I may be misremembering). 'Kennst du daß Land?' (1795), 'notoriously difficult to translate', expresses a longing for the South with its lemons and oranges, where 'a soft wind blows in the blue sky, / The myrtle silent and the laurel high'.  Finlay's 'translation' is a seascape as desirable as Goethe’s Mediterranean landscape, with lemon-shaped fishing boats, orange nets, a salt wind and a fountain of spray.  Goethe ends his poem with the lover's desire to fly south, whereas Finlay asks 'Beloved did you know this sea? / Did you know it well?'  This seems to Perloff more appropriate for Finlay’s late twentieth-century Scotland, 'a cooler, less idealistic form of longing.'


Mike C. said...

I had assumed there was some deeply ironic, French Revolutionary significance to "Louvre" for Finlay which I was too ignorant to pick up on... Perhaps not?

I expect you have it, but the book "Ian Hamilton Finlay: a visual primer" by Yves Abrioux is a feast for the eye.


Plinius said...

Thanks - yes Abrioux is an essential book!

The business of collecting stones and pebbles is a fascinating one. I mentioned here a while back that the painter Brice Marden now owns some Chinese scholars' rocks. These natural objects have thus accrued a double layering of cultural significance. Would the fact that a humble pebble had been in Kettle's Yard confer value on it? Do they have an accurate record of all their pebbles? All bags have to be left at the entrance...

I've been to three friends' flats/houses in the last month. Two have pebbles on display, directly inspired by Kettle's Yard. At the other one, we were discussing the fact that the shelves have been temporarily denuded of found objects while my friend does a short academic posting in Leeds. In relocating she was asked by the man helping her move in what was so heavy in one of her bags. "It's my collection of Scottish river stones" she explained.

Mike C. said...

After 25 years of family holidays, our house groans beneath the accumulated weight of rocks, pebbles and fossils. As a potential change of location approaches, a dilemma arises: what on earth to do with them?

Struan Gray -- a British academic working in Sweden -- wrote this about pebble-collecting in Scotland a while ago: