Ian Hamilton Finlay

Lyre (Mk. 2) [collaboration with John Andrew]


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Not on display
Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925–2006
Portland and Nabresina limestones
Object: 232 x 324 x 121 mm, 19.1 kg
Purchased 1977

Display caption

Ian Hamilton Finlay has achieved international recognition as an artist although he has described himself as a poet. He has also explained that his stone works are not to be thought of as 'sculptures' 'since they are the material form of ideas'. In 'Lyre (MK.2)' Finlay combines an image of modern warfare, a six-pounder gun, with the word 'Lyre', evoking a pastoral or classical theme. By linking these two opposites Finlay sought to create a unified structure. At the same time, the disparities between image and text invest the object depicted with new and surprising connotations.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

T02252 LYRE (MK. 2) 1977

Not inscribed
Portland Stone and nebrasina, 9 7/8 × 12 3/4 × 4 7/8 (23.2 × 32.4 × 12.1)
Purchased from Ian Hamilton Finlay (Knapping Fund) 1977
Exh: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Serpentine Gallery, September–October 1977 (works not numbered, shown in the Neo-Classical Room)

During the 1960s much of Ian Hamilton Finlay's work related to fishing and sailing boats. In 1972 some of his poem/prints and other works began to refer to weapons of war, first aircraft carriers and later nuclear submarines, tanks and guns.

A card ‘Wild Hawthorn Weapons Series No.1’, done in collaboration with Susan Goodricke, published in 1973, shows an Oerlikon gun, as does ‘Wild Hawthorn Weapons Series No.2: Homage to Max Bill’ published in 1974. On the latter card is printed a quotation from a book on Max Bill's sculpture.

In about 1976 Finlay made a model about 3in high of an Oerlikon gun; a photograph of the model by Carl Heideken was used for a card ‘Lyres(1)’ published in 1976. On the card was printed a quotation referring to the philosophy of the 6th century bc Greek thinker Heraclitus, from Edward Hussey's The Presocratics (London, 1972): ‘Applied to a lyre, harmonie might refer to the structure of the unstrung lyre, or to that of the strung lyre whether tuned or not, or to that of the lyre tuned in a particular mode’. The image of the gun and the words constitute an emblem.

In A Silver Jubilee Exhibition of Contemporary British Sculpture held at Battersea Park June–September 1977 Finlay's contribution was an actual Swiss Oerlikon gun standing on concrete slabs accompanied by the Hussey quotation given above cut in a slab of slate. A photograph of this work in situ was reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of Finlay's exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, September–October 1977. For Finlay some guns are ‘superlative steel sculptures, better than much abstract sculpture’.

A parallel work to the Battersea Park sculpture, a wooden model about 18in high, made by John R. Thorpe, was shown at the Redfern Gallery, June–July 1977, exhibition of maquettes, drawings and related material which referred to the Battersea Park exhibition.

For Finlay a 6-pounder gun, which is often on motor torpedo boats, evokes both a cubist painting in three dimensions and a Picasso relief of c. 1914. Finlay made a model, about 3in high, of a 6-pounder gun in about 1976 which was used by John Andrew as a basis for executing T02252 which he carved in his studio at Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire in February 1977. A photograph of the model by Carl Heideken was used for a card ‘Lyres (2)’ published in 1978. On the card the gun was set in an orange oval surround, a reference to cubism, and accompanied by a quotation of Jean Cocteau, published in ‘Notes Concerning Music’ by Jean Cocteau, translated by Rollo H. Myers, Egoist Press, London, 1921; ‘With us, there is a house, a lamp, a plate of soup, a fire, wine and pipes at the back of every important work of art.’

For Finlay the quotation from Hussey cut in slate in the Battersea exhibit was modified by the proximity of the Oerlikon gun and the ‘lyre tuned in another mode’ became ‘pointed and ironic’. Likewise with the Cocteau quotation relating to ‘Lyres (Mk.2)’ the words ‘pipe’ and ‘fire’ are modified to ‘pure irony, classical irony, not debased sarcasm’. It is not necessary to show the Cocteau quotation by T02252 when it is exhibited.

In Finlay's view the unpublished lecture Heraclitus: Meaning and Understanding given by Edward Hussey at the Serpentine Gallery at the time of the exhibition in 1977, was also about Finlay's ‘way of making meaning’ which has much in common with Heraclitus' philosophy.

According to Hussey in his lecture: ‘Heraclitus’ parables are almost all concerned with the central theme of his thought; unity in diversity and unity in opposition. The parables present cases in which opposites are indissolubly linked together. There is, for example, the road: it is a road uphill and a road downhill, at one and the same time ... The characteristic properties of things derive their very being from what is most opposed to them; if there were no such things as disease, there would be no such thing as health as a state to be valued and enjoyed.

‘... basically and crudely, Heraclitus’ line of approach, to the Unity and Meaning questions, seems to have been as follows. The universe has a unity because it has a structure; and it has a meaning because that structure is planned.

‘The word Heraclitus chose to convey his new concept was harmoniē - which must not be thought of as meaning “harmony”. It is a noun derived from a verb meaning “to fit together” and the prime examples Heraclitus gives of the kind of structure that exists in the universe are: the bow and the lyre. There is a deep dispute among scholars about the significance of this remark and these examples. It is at least a compliment to Heraclitus’ “patron saint”, the god Apollo, the oracle-giving god who in two other roles was the destructive archer and the civilising inspirer of music among men.

‘... So understanding consists in establishing, in the mind, a unified structure which combines opposites....’


'Following his consideration of the Battersea version of “Lyre” (using the real oerlikon), Edward Hussey wrote to Finlay with the comment: “You seem to have incorporated in your Lyre a point which occurred to me after the book” - i.e. The Presocratics, Duckworth - “was written: that an inner connection linking bow and lyre is given by the fact that both are instruments of the oracular god Apollo, who as ‘far-shooting’ archer sends out messages of death, as lyre-player messages of music.”

'In addition to the deliberate cubist reference (underlined by the use of the oval), Finlay intends his work to invoke the neo-classical tradition represented by such an artist as J.-L. David. The latter is known for his close relation with Robespierre both as artist and political activist. Against the view of the moment, Finlay has often expressed his enthusiasm for the idea of art as an ethical activity. This is more easily understandable if one remembers that Finlay describes himself as a poet, and has often explained that his stone works are not to be thought of as “sculptures” in the contemporary sense, since they are the material form of ideas. Finlay has wryly commented that he is perhaps the only living admirer of Robespierre, and certainly the only living poet (artist?) who would have been pleased to help to organise the famous “Fête of The Supreme Being”, (an event of which, as he says, the Arts Council would scarcely have approved.)

‘Without extending these notes to book-length, it is impossible to deal with a further question which seems to be raised by Lyre - that of the relation of neo-classicism to the epic (strange as this may seem in the context of an almost miniature relief) -and of the antagonism between the epic and what Finlay terms the Secular-Convenient mode of our society. At least before his recently renewed disputes with the Arts Councils, Finlay was known to be planning an exhibition which would deal specifically with this theme, “The Third Reich Revisited” - and he had been in correspondence with Albert Speer, known for his once close relationship with the German neo-classical sculptor Arno Breker.’

This catalogue entry, approved by the artist, is based on a discussion between Ian Hamilton Finlay and the compiler of 30 December 1977; the final three paragraphs, written by Finlay, accompanied a letter of 24 October 1978 to the compiler.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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