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Ian Hamilton Finlay

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Ian Hamilton Finlay
knee high portrait of subject carrying a three-foot sailboat
Ian Hamilton Finlay at Little Sparta, 1994
Born(1925-10-28)28 October 1925
Died27 March 2006(2006-03-27) (aged 80)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Known forPoetry, concrete poetry, art, gardens, sculpture, publishing
Notable work
The grave of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Abercorn churchyard

Ian Hamilton Finlay CBE (28 October 1925 – 27 March 2006) was a Scottish poet, writer, artist and gardener.


Finlay was born in Nassau, Bahamas, to James Hamilton Finlay and his wife, Annie Pettigrew, both of Scots descent.

He was educated at Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire and later at Glasgow School of Art. At the age of 13, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he was evacuated to family in the countryside (firstly to Gartmore and then to Kirkudbright). In 1942, he joined the British Army.[5] Finlay was married twice and had two children, Alec and Ailie. Throughout his life, he suffered severely from agoraphobia. [6] He died in Edinburgh in 2006.[7] He is buried alone in Abercorn Churchyard in West Lothian. The grave lies in the extreme south-east corner of the churchyard. The gravestone refers to his parents and sister.


At the end of the war, Finlay worked as a shepherd, before beginning to write short stories and poems, while living on Rousay, in Orkney. He published his first book, The Sea Bed and Other Stories, in 1958, with some of his plays broadcast on the BBC, and some stories featured in The Glasgow Herald.[5]

His first collection of poetry, The Dancers Inherit the Party, was published in 1960 by Migrant Press with a second edition published in 1962. The third edition, published by Fulcrum Press (London) in 1969, included a number of new poems and was inaccurately described by the publisher as a first edition, which led to a complex legal dispute.[8] Dancers was included in its entirety in a New Directions annual a few years later.

In 1963, Finlay published Rapel, his first collection of concrete poetry (poetry in which the layout and typography of the words contributes to its overall effect), and it was as a concrete poet that he first gained wide renown. Much of this work was issued through his own Wild Hawthorn Press, in his magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.[9]

Finlay became notable as a poet, when reducing the monostich form to one word[10] with his concrete poems in the 1960s.[11] Repetition, imitation and tradition lay at the heart of Hamilton's poetry,[12] and exploring ' the juxtaposition of apparently opposite ideas'.[13]


Later, Finlay began to compose poems to be inscribed into stone, incorporating these sculptures into the natural environment. This kind of 'poem-object' features in the garden Little Sparta that he and Sue Finlay created together in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, although Finlay was always explicit that while “the original brief suggests sculpture being added to the garden, but I had them revise this to the understanding that the work would be the garden itself.” [14] The five-acre garden also includes more conventional sculptures and two garden temples.

In December 2004, in a poll[15] conducted by Scotland on Sunday, a panel of fifty artists, gallery directors and arts professionals voted Little Sparta to be the most important work of Scottish art.[16] Second and third were the Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and The Skating Minister by Henry Raeburn. Sir Roy Strong has said of Little Sparta that it is "the only really original garden made in this country since 1945".[17]

The Little Sparta Trust[18] plans to preserve Little Sparta for the nation by raising enough to pay for an ongoing maintenance fund. Richard Ingleby,[19] Ian Kennedy, Magnus Linklater, and Ann Uppington[20] are trustees. Former trustees include Ian Appleton, Stephen Bann, Stephen Blackmore,[21] Patrick Eyres,[22] John Leighton, Duncan Macmillan, Victoria Miro, Paul Nesbitt and Jessie Sheeler.

Hamilton Finlay and George Oliver's 1973 Arcadia screenprint uses camouflage in modern art to contrast leafy peace and military hardware. He continually revisited war themes and the concept of the Utopian Arcadia in his work.[23]

Finlay's work is notable for a number of recurring themes: a penchant for classical writers (especially Virgil); a concern with fishing and the sea; an interest in the French Revolution; and a continual revisiting of World War II and the memento mori Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego. His 1973 screenprint of a tank camouflaged in a leaf pattern, Arcadia, referring to the Utopian Arcadia of poetry and art (another recurring theme), is described by the Tate as drawing "an ironic parallel between this idea of a natural paradise and the camouflage patterns on a tank".[23] In the 1982 exhibition The Third Reich Revisited, Nazi iconography featured on architectural drawings by Ian Appleton, with captions by Finlay which could be read as a sardonic critique of Scotland's arts establishment.[24]

Finlay's use of Nazi imagery led to an accusation of neo-Nazi sympathies and antisemitism. Finlay sued a Paris magazine which had made such accusations, and was awarded nominal damages of one franc. The stress of this situation brought about the separation between Finlay and his wife Sue.[25]

Finlay also came into conflict with the Strathclyde Regional Council over his liability for rates on a byre in his garden, which the council insisted was being used as commercial premises. Finlay insisted that it was a garden temple.[26]

One of the few gardens outside Scotland to permanently display his work is the Improvement Garden in Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton, created in collaboration with Sue Finlay, Gary Hincks and Nicholas Sloan.

Finlay was nominated[27] for the Turner Prize in 1985. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Aberdeen University in 1987, Heriot-Watt University in 1993[28] 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[29] in 2002, and the Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award[30] in 2003. Awarded in the Queen's New Year's Honours list in 2002, Finlay was a CBE.[31]

Finlay's work has been seen as austere, but also at times witty, or even darkly whimsical.

He is represented by the Wild Hawthorn Press, the Archive of Ian Hamilton Finlay, which works closely with the Ingleby Gallery (Edinburgh)[32] and the Victoria Miro Gallery (London) in the U.K.[33]


Finlay's designs were most often built by others.[5] Finlay respected the expertise of sandblasters, engravers and printers he worked with,[34] having approximately one hundred collaborators including Patrick Caulfield, Richard Demarco, Malcolm Fraser, Christopher Hall, Margot Sandeman. He also worked with a host of lettering artists including Michael Harvey and Nicholas Sloan.[35][36]

Printed works[edit]

  • Wild Hawthorn Press
  • Little Sparta Trust
  • Ingleby Gallery
  • National Galleries of Scotland
  • Victoria Miro Gallery
  • Tate
  • UK Government Art Collection
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales

Sculptures and gardens[edit]

Five Columns by Finlay in the Kröller-Müller Museum

A partial list of Finlay sculptures and gardens.[37][38] A few photographs are reachable through the external links.

Books by Finlay[edit]

  • Finlay, Ian Hamilton (September–October 2004). Ken Cockburn; Lilias Fraser (eds.). The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts, An' a Burd. Polygon in association with Scottish Poetry Library. ISBN 1-904598-13-7. Original: 1960 Migrant Press, 1961 Wild Hawthorn Press, 1961 Wild Flounder Press, 1969 Fulcrum Press, 1995 or 1996 or 1997 Polygon ISBN 0-7486-6207-3[41][42]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tate. "'Sea Poppy I [collaboration with Alistair Cant]', Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1966 – Tate". Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  2. ^ Tate. "'Starlit Waters', Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1967 – Tate". Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  3. ^ Tate. "'The Little Seamstress [collaboration with Richard Demarco]', Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1970 – Tate". Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  4. ^ http://www.ianhamiltonfinlay.com/images/ihfcard/treeshells.jpg [bare URL image file]
  5. ^ a b c Johnson, Ken (31 March 2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay, 80, Poet and Conceptual Artist, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 November 2006.
  6. ^ "Ian Hamilton Finlay's Agoraphobia, New Exhibition in Glasgow". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 12 December 2023.
  7. ^ McNay, Michael (29 March 2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay". The Guardian. London: Guardian Newspapers Limited. Retrieved 10 November 2006.
  8. ^ Finlay, Alec; Ian Hamilton Finlay (1996). The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts. Edinburgh: Polygon. p. 7 (A Note on the Text).
  9. ^ Kettle's Yard Guide, Cambridge 2008 ISBN 9781904561279
  10. ^ Hirsch, Edward 'A Poets Glossary', Houghton Mifflin HRcourt, Boston 2014 ISBN 9780151011957
  11. ^ Perloff, Marjorie Review 'Dreams of Weeds' T L S London April 29, 2005
  12. ^ Matsumoto, Lila 'Imitation, Reflection, Tradition: Some Reflections on the Poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay' Forum Issue 15, University of Edinburgh Autumn 2012
  13. ^ 'Beauty and Revolution : The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay' Kettle's Yard Exhibition Catalogue (Teachers Resource) Cambridge 2014
  14. ^ Sheeler, Jessie (2015). Little Sparta: A Guide to the Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd. p. 83.
  15. ^ "Home | the Scotsman". Archived from the original on 3 May 2005.
  16. ^ Martell, Peter (5 December 2004). "Little Sparta goes a long way in poll on Scotland's greatest art". Scotland on Sunday. The Scotsman. Archived from the original on 3 May 2005. Retrieved 17 November 2006.
  17. ^ Gibbons, Fiachra (30 June 2003). "Penniless poet's vision that bloomed". The Guardian. London: Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 17 November 2006.
  18. ^ "Little Sparta Trust website". www.littlesparta.co.uk. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  19. ^ "Ingleby Gallery". www.inglebygallery.com. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  20. ^ "Ann Uppington, Uppington Gardens - Landscape Designer, Garden Tour Guide, Public Presentations". Archived from the original on 11 March 2007. Retrieved 2006-11-17.
  21. ^ "Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – Regius Keeper's message". www.rbge.org.uk. Archived from the original on 17 November 2007. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  22. ^ "New Arcadian Press". www.newarcadianpress.co.uk. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  23. ^ a b "Ian Hamilton Finlay: Arcadia (collaboration with George Oliver)". Arcadia, 1973. Tate. July 2008. Retrieved 11 May 2012.
  24. ^ Eyres, Patrick (1982), The Third Reich Revisited in Hearn, Sheila G. (ed.), Cencrastus No. 10, Autumn 1982, pp. 23 - 27, ISSN 0264-0856
  25. ^ Craig (2010)
  26. ^ The Times (28 March 2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay: Scottish poet and artist who turned his Lanarkshire grounds into Little Sparta, a celebrated shrine to pacifism". Times Online. London: Times Newspapers Ltd. Retrieved 10 April 2007. and Jones, Jonathan (10 April 2007). "Signs of the times". The Guardian. London: Guardian Newspapers Limited. Retrieved 10 April 2007.
  27. ^ "Turner Prize 1985 artists: Ian Hamilton Finlay – Tate". www.tate.org.uk. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  28. ^ "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". www1.hw.ac.uk. Archived from the original on 18 April 2016. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  29. ^ "RCHS – Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society – Caley Scottish Gardening Society Scotland". www.royalcaledonianhorticulturalsociety.org. Archived from the original on 29 June 2008. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  30. ^ "Creative Scotland Awards - Artist Details". Archived from the original on 8 October 2007. Retrieved 10 November 2006.
  31. ^ The Little Sparta Trust (2006). "Ian Hamilton Finlay". Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  32. ^ "Ian Hamilton Finlay". Ingleby Gallery. Retrieved 23 March 2019. Ingleby Gallery work closely with Finlay's Estate and holds a substantial selection from the archive of his Wild Hawthorn Press in stock.
  33. ^ "Ian Hamilton Finlay". Victoria Miro Gallery. Retrieved 23 March 2019.
  34. ^ Exhibition catalogue 'Beauty and Revolution: The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamililton Finlay' Kettle's Yard, Cambridge 2014
  35. ^ Finlay, Ian Hamilton (2006). "Printed works". Wild Hawthorn Press. Retrieved 10 November 2006.
  36. ^ Finlay, Ian Hamilton (2006). "Tate Collection". Retrieved 10 November 2006.
  37. ^ Finlay, Ian Hamilton (1995). Zdenek Felix; Pia Simig (eds.). Works in Europe 1972–1995 Werke in Europa. Werner Hannappel (photographer). Cantz Verlag. ISBN 3-89322-749-0.
  38. ^ Peter Coates (n.d.). "Biography: Collaborations with Ian Hamilton Finlay". Archived from the original on 12 January 2006. Retrieved 16 November 2006.
  39. ^ Historic Environment Scotland. "Perth, Cherrybank, Arthur Bells Distillers, Garden (293945)". Canmore.
  40. ^ "Ian-Hamilton-Finlay-Park". www.grevenbroich.de (in German). Retrieved 12 September 2018.
  41. ^ The Trustees of Indiana University (n.d.). "IU Lilly Library". Retrieved 18 November 2006.
  42. ^ Ingleby Gallery (n.d.). "Bookshop and Editions". Archived from the original on 22 May 2006. Retrieved 18 November 2006.


External links[edit]