Edinburgh 17-21 September 2015
Graham and Shirley Howes
Our visit, led by Ruth Rattenbury and Deborah Owen, was exceptionally rewarding. The weather, despite the warning that ‘Edinburgh has only two seasons, June and winter’, was intermittently dry and warm, while our hotel was ideally located for unscheduled personal expeditions on foot. For our group events, the city itself had much to offer, a strong sense of wide-ranging and often innovative artistic activity. Phyllida Barlow’s specially commissioned sculptures seemed to overwhelm the modest two-storey confines of the Fruitmarket Gallery. Many felt we were on safer ground when we walked down Martin Creed’s elegant, ordered, multi-toned marble ‘Scotsman Steps’ next to the Gallery.
A scheduled Sunday morning in the National Gallery of Modern Art turned into an extended study day for many of us. This was partly because of the Director Simon Groom’s warm welcome and enthusiastic vision (it came as no surprise to learn that Simon had begun his curatorial career at Kettle’s Yard under Michael Harrison) and also because of the sheer range and quality of the exhibits within the main building and in the smaller annexe, housing a cluster of Surrealists, plus Paolozzi’s ‘Vulcan’ and his reconstructed studio. Outside, the extensive grounds contained sculpture, and a frontal lawn memorably re-shaped by Charles Jencks.
There was more of what one wit called ‘high Jencks’ when we visited Jupiter Artland. Here, in the grounds of Bonnington House, Jencks had been invited by its owners to construct, over more than a decade, an imposing series of eight ‘Life Mounds’ and a connecting causeway which encircled four lakes. Some of us crawled vertiginously up and down the spiralled cones, while a select few perched themselves, like eighteenth-century Grand Tourists, at the summit of the largest one. There was much else to experience throughout Jupiter’s eclectic mélange of work by Gormley, Kapoor, Goldsworthy, Marc Quinn and, in a dark corner of a wood, Laura Ford’s unnerving quintet of ‘Weeping Girls’.
Our second rural visit was even more memorable. Seven miles south of the city centre is the late fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel – painted by Turner, drawn by the young Ruskin and more recently popularised through Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Most of us focussed exclusively on the chapel’s stunning setting above the Esk, the powerful exterior and the astonishingly profuse, thematically complex sculptural programmes within an ostensibly Gothic interior.
After such iconographic overkill, the neo-classical constaint and subtle wit of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta was a genuinely memorable experience. Not only had the ground already been prepared for many of us by the recent exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, but we had its curator Stephen Bann with us for our visit. He led us – on foot – up the half-mile farm track to a seemingly modest cluster of buildings perched on an exposed knoll. There he brilliantly described its transformation by Finlay over forty years, from a bleak Pentland farm into the highly original, intellectually ordered ‘garden-as-artwork’ (never a sculpture park!) that is Little Sparta today. We heard of Finlay’s preoccupation as writer and artist with the poetics and iconography of landscape, the relationship of man-made objects to the natural world, his interest in classical literature and philosophy and his insistence on the highest quality design and craftsmanship in realising his evolving vision for the site. Then we explored Little Sparta for ourselves. Each of its ten discrete components generated differing moods and meanings, often reinforced in situ by apposite and often witty stone inscriptions (many immaculately carved by Michael Harvey). Little Sparta’s subtly modulated and always controlled elision of nature and culture was what one of us (himself a retired landscape architect) described as ‘simply a revelation’. In this sense, although Ian Hamilton Finlay never visited Kettle’s Yard in person, some of the Friends of Kettle’s Yard were at last able to visit him.