Visual Arts in Ayrshire

The Maclaurin Art Collection  ~  Late Period Purchase

Ian Hamilton Finlay CBE 1925 - 2006   ~  Thermidor (1986)

1.  Thermidor
The French Revolution, in fact, made explicit use of natural imagery to 'ground' its ideas.    In 1793 the Jacobin political leaders created a new calendar, with 1792 as Year 1, to replace eighteen centuries of time structured by Christian beliefs and traditions.   The months and days were renamed after objects of bucolic virtue such as fruits, vegetables, crops, flowers, farm animals, and agricultural implements.   By means of hyperbole, as is the poet's licence, Finlay has characterised this merger of the political and the natural in an aphoristic sentence: 'For the best of the Jacobins the Revolution was intended as a pastoral whose Virgil was Rousseau.'

In Year II, on the day called Arrosoir (Watering Can) during Thermidor (Month of Heat) - July 28th 1794 - two of the principal Jacobin leaders during the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre and Louise Antoine Saint-Just, were themselves sent to the guillotine.   For Finlay, these two controversial leaders represent an uncompromising commitment to the highest ideals of the French Revolution, in contrast to the concessions to bourgeois values by the Girondists and Thermidorians who, in Finlay's view, sabotaged the realisation of the original goals of the new Republic.

Two works [in the exhibition] refer directly to the deaths of Robespierre and Saint-Just.   A ceramic watering can, Arrosoir (1985), is a pastoral memorial to Saint-Just, with his dates of birth and death painted on the side.   In Thermidor (1987), Finlay presents eight clay flower pots with plant markers, along with a ram's bell and a watering can, which together identify the Jacobin agricultural days of the decade (the new ten-day week) leading up to their death. This combination of the promise of the young seedlings with the denouement of tragic violence makes explicit meaning of revolution as both cycluical and tumultuous, a natural and political regeneration.

[These paragraphs are included in Introduction to the exhibition Matrix 116 by John B. Ravenal and Andrea Miller-Keller.  The exhibition was shown from September 29 - November 17, 1991, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  This was the first major showing of Finlay's work in the USA.]


Thermidor (1986)

)In the French Republican calendar 'Thermidor' was the eleventh month, named after the French word 'thermal' which means heat. 'Thermidor' was the second month of the summer quarter (mois d'été).   It started on July 19th or 20th. It ended on August 17th or 18th.   It follows 'Messidor' and precedes the 'Fructidor'.

Thermidor has come to mean a retreat from more radical goals and revolutionary strategies, especially when caused by a replacement of leading personalities. Historically, 'Thermidor' refers to the coup of 9th Thermidor (27 July 1794) in which Maximilien Robespierre was guillotined and the 'Reign of Terror' ended.

Ian Hamilton Finlay's Thermidor 1993 comprises ten plinths.  Eight carry earthenware flower pots filled with earth, each marked with a white painted wooden seedbed marker.  On the fifth plinth a cow bell represents the 'Ram' (perhaps a pun for Bélier) and the final plinth caries a green painted watering can with a rosette. A further plinth carries a text.   (Note: The above illustration shows the installation in a different format that may not have been approved by Finlay.)

Like all French Revolutionary Calendar months, Thermidor lasted 30 days and was divided into three 10-day weeks called décades (decades). Every day had the name of an agricultural plant, except the 5th (Quintidi) and 10th day (Decadi) of every decade, which had the name of a domestic animal or an agricultural tool, respectively. The first decade of Thermidor is as follows; 

Primidi 1. Epeautre (German wheat)
Duodi 2. Bouillon blanc (Mullein)
Tridi 3. Melon (Melon)
Quartidi 4. Ivraie (Corn-cockle)
Quintidi 5. Bélier (Ram)
Sextidi 6. Prêle (Mare's tail)
Septidi 7. Armoise (Mug-wort)
Octidi 8. Carthame (Safflower)
Nonidi 9. Mûre (Blackberries)
Decadi 10. Arrosoir (Watering Can)

The work, Thermidor, marks the creation of the revolutionary calendar and the events in year 2, notably the impeachment of members of the Directory, including St. Just and Robespierre, leading to their execution on 28th July 1796 (Decadi in the month of Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar). The presence of the watering can represents the name of the day but may also be regarded as the spilling of blood to nurture the seeds of revolution. 

[Text based on Notes on Thermidor by Sandy and Frances Caldwell]

Unique: Thermidor, 1988
Ian Hamilton Finlay 'The Graphic Work', Saturday, September 2, 2006–Sunday, October 29, 2006

Kewenig Galerie

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Ian Hamilton Finlay 'The Graphic Work'
Ian Hamilton Finlay 'The Graphic Work'
Cologne, Germany Saturday, September 2, 2006–Sunday, October 29, 2006


2.  Finlay by Reeve

3.  Guardian

4. Sparta
A journey to Little Sparta leading to a meeting with the artist and a 'Revolutionary' Purchase.

After the excitement of the early purchases and the involvement with international artists such as Alan Davie, Bridget Riley and Sir Terry Frost, the thoughts of the purchasing committee returned to Ian Hamilton Finlay. His work had been in the sights of many of the committee members from the mid-eighties and the gallery had benefitted from loans of his work from the Scottish Arts Council Collection. A further factor in favour of including Finlay in the collection was the presentation of a Scottish Arts Council exhibition relating to Finlay's work with the Wild Hawthorne Press. This show was presented within Rozelle House.



Ian Hamilton Finlay CBE 1925 - 2006

1.    Ian Hamilton Finlay CBE 1925 - 2006.  Thermidor. 1986,  Eight earthenware flower pots filled with earth, each marked with a white painted wooden seedbed marker, cow bell and a green painted watering can with a rosette.  Acquired by the Maclaurin Art Collection from the artist with the assistance of a purchase grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions. 

Exhibited within Rozelle House, from 6th January - 10th February 1996.

The work was acquired from the artist with the assistance of a purchase grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions. 

Date: November, 2014
Photographer: ©Mike Bailey

2. Ian Hamilton Finlay, Photographed by Antonia Reeve.  ©Antonia Reeve

3.    Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta. Photographed by ©Murdo Macleod. 

4.    A young 'sans culottes', under maternal supervision, explores the revolutionary garden at Little Sparta

Date: August, 1995.
Photographer ©Mike Bailey

Purchase championed by Sandy Caldwell and Mike Bailey.  Interpretation provided by Frances Caldwell.


The Maclaurin Trust acquired this work by Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1995.  The work had not been, as far as I can ascertain, exhibited in Ayr since 1997 but was accorded a prime place in the 2014/15 exhibition At to Inspire, a historical review of the Maclaurin Art Collection 1983 - 2014/5.   However, other versions of the work have been seen in various European galleries, usually displayed in a different order.

The work, Thermidor, marks the creation of the revolutionary calendar and the events in year 2 and the impeachment and execution of members of the Directory, including St. Just and Robespierre on 28th July 1796 (Decadi in the month of Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar). 

As an art work, the concept was developed from Revolution, n. 1982 which was shown at the Maclaurin Art Gallery in 1987 as part of the Unpainted Landscape Exhibition.

Revolution, n. 1986,  Ian Hamilton Finlay CBE 1925 - 2006.   Earthenware pots, 'seed packets', soil and timber plinths.  Collection of the artists.  Included in the Scottish Arts Council touring exhibition, The Unpainted Landscape 1987

Finlay 1
Ian Hamilton Finlay CBE 1925 - 2006.  Revolution, n. 1986 (detail)

This image shows the work displayed in the Garden Temple at Little Sparta.  The explanatory text on the plinth is as follows:

Revolution, n. a scheme
for the improving of a country;
a scheme for realising the
capabilities of a country.
A return. A restoration.
A renewal.

The French Revolution is but
the forerunner of another, much greater
more solemn REVOLUTION,
which will be the final one.

Sylvan Marechal.

The REVOLUTION must not be
confounded with REVOLUTIONS.

Jules Clarete

Ian Hamilton Finlay (Scottish, 1925 - 2006) Finlay was born in the Bahamas to Scottish parents, who returned to Scotland when he was a child.  He attended Glasgow School of Art for a brief period but began his career as a writer of 'concrete poetry'.  Finlay's work investigates the power of images and symbols, particularly those associated with militarism, politics, classicism and nature.

Creating an analogy between war and the forces of Nature, he highlighted the thin line that exists between creation and destruction, order and disorder, culture and chaos. His art presents a challenging and often complex fusion of poetry, graphic design and sculpture.

In 1966 Finlay moved to a farmhouse in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, where he created a sculpture garden called to display his artworks in a natural setting.

Finlay was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Aberdeen University in 1987, Heriot-Watt University in 1993 and the University of Glasgow in 2001, and an honorary and/or visiting professorship from the University of Dundee in 1999.

The French Communist Party presented him with a bust of Saint-Just in 1991. He received the Scottish Horticultural Medal from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society in 2002, and the Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award in 2003. Finlay was awarded a CBE in the Queen's New Year's Honours list in 2002,

[Text based on various biographical notes and catalogue texts.]


Ian Hamilton Finlay in the Gallery and in his Garden

Little Sparta, Finlay's home in the Pentland Hills to the south west of Edinburgh has functioned as a studio workshop, a site for work (and ideas) in progress, an inspiration and a place of refuge.  Increasingly, Finlay resisted opportunities to travel and came to rely on his assistants and collaborators to present his work in the wider field.  Inevitably Little Sparta became a place of pilgrimage for his supporters and accolytes.

Finlay, with an understanding of the challenges saw his life work in literary and conceptual terms; buildings within his garden were temples of art.  The more prosaic minds of the bureaucrats saw them as galleries to promote his ideas; on this basis, the local authority denied Finlay the status of a charitable body and demanded the payments of taxes on the buildings.  Opposition to these bureaucrats was to lead to the battles of Little Sparta, where sheriff Officers dispatched by the avaricious Local Authority were harassed by the St-Just Vigilantes who were determined to uphold Finlays' s views and frustrate the narrow expectations of the bureaucrats.  The unwillingness of the Scottish Arts Council to accept Finlay's view resulted in a polarisation of opinion within the arts community.

In this sense, Finlay's stand can be equated with the action on the Stone of Destiny, removed from Westminster Abbey by raiding students in the middle years of the last century.


The Seeds of Change featuring Ian Hamilton Finlay's : Thermidor.

A recent exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London presented a unique juxtaposition of Ian Hamilton Finlay's sculpture and a series of text works, termed Definitions. These Definitions present Finlay's own interpretations of the meanings of words, and in conjunction with related sculptural works, display Finlay's adroitness in exploring the written word's materiality. 

Ian Hamilton Finlay was at heart a poet, whose prose, rooted in the concrete poetry movement, finds its sublime presentation within the visual field. Informed by numerous sources, his work operates within a context of literature, mythology and classicism. Finlay's ongoing endeavour throughout his lifetime of practice was to expand, liberate and challenge our understanding and perception of the written word, its limitations and its role in unspoken, communicative and aesthetic exchange. He achieved this through poetry rendered in many materials and forms.

Finlay's adept use of syntax and narrative configuration weaved refined distinctions with a lyrical philosophy. His skill lay in his unique ability to break down complex ideas into coherent single words and short phrases, infused with Finlay's characteristic wit and, often, wry humour.

The exhibition revealed how Finlay played with our presuppositions and undermined our very understanding of language. His Definitions were interspersed at considered at precisely choreographed points through the exhibition, initiating a narrative journey for the visitor through the consideration of text and object. No visitor's reading shall be the same, as these open-ended propositions allow for endless interpretations of work and meaning.  The intricate and multi-layered relationships established between language, text, object and visitor are integral to an enduring search for the pure, which prevailed within Finlay's practice.

The purest kind of conceptual artist, Finlay was sensitive to the formalist concerns (colour, shape, scale, texture, composition) of literary and artistic modernism. His lifetime's work, the garden at Little Sparta, Stonypath, Scotland, begun in 1966, most fully realises the movement of words and language into the world.

Ian Hamilton Finlay died 27 March 2006, aged 80.

[Text based on notes for the exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery, May 2011.]



This page is based on recollections by Sandy and Frances Caldwell with Mike Bailey, Joan Hughson and Graeme Murray, and other published sources.   Mrs Mary E Maclaurin's Trust is a Registered Scottish Charity

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Maclaurin Art Collection ~ Updated March 5, 2016